Sri Aurobindo and the Bengal Renaissance by Debashish Banerji

Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo and the Bengal Renaissance

Debashish Banerji

We call our present world the modern world, it is the global condition and the age in which we live. We often forget that this Age has its own history, its own initiating conditions, its own projections into the future. We take it for granted because we are immersed in it. However, in recent times, there has been much thinking on the phenomenon of modernity. All human beings living today are participants in this phenomenon partaking of its quality of being. It is a quality we take for granted and thus assume as defining what it means to be human. I don’t mean  by this that we take for granted the kinds of objects that we are surrounded by today, objects which are subject to rapid change, but increasingly, we believe that we have always had the same kinds of needs, desires, emotions, responses and determining forces to our human condition. This kind of experience arises from an understated homogeneity that marks an epoch and the global universality of our present epoch reinforces this experience as never before. Yet, such a sense of time is illusory, every epoch – and modernity, along with the ages that have preceded it – is only a temporal phenomenon. It was preluded by another way of being and it will be followed by other ways of being. Modernity as a way of being, that we can call truly global today, has crystallized due to certain historical events that made their appearance in Europe some 500 years ago. It is not a conspiracy, nor is it predictable or fully explainable in historical terms. A study of history shows us that the way people experience their times is marked by a sense of uniqueness when compared with other times. Such changes of Age represent forms of disclosure of Being; each Age hides certain aspects of Being and discloses others. The enterprise of History is one of trying to make sense of these changes and the relations between them. Yet, try as we may to find causes which allow us to explain away the change of an Age, there remains something mysterious about these transitions. Changes of age occur by the fiat of what Sri Aurobindo calls the Time-Spirit; Hegel calls this the Zeitgeist. Since the Hegelian Zeitgeist smacks of a determinism in a predictable history of Being, and our present Age is premised on a rejection of transcendental determinism,  it might seem unfashionable to talk of Time-Spirit and Zeitgeist today, but even contemporary thinkers cannot put a finger on all the causes that make an age change.

Such a change of Age took place around the 17th century. The century is a convenient marker, we cannot pin the change of an age to a date because it proceeds through a process which occupies a shifting span of time. Events relate to other sporadic events loosely in an inseparable matrix flowing from an indistinct “past” to a “present” gathering qualitative character, till  we suddenly find ourselves in a new way of being which we call the Modern Age. One may speak of the European Renaissance as a cultural movement which leads to Modernity, but increasingly today, in identifying the peculiarly technical mode of being in Modernity, thinkers isolate the post-Renaissance phenomenon of the Enlightenment as its founding event. This is a chapter in the intellectual history of Europe, which belongs more properly to the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment can be seen as providing the idea-forces, leading to consequences in the life-world, the world of life, leading to what we know today as Modernity. So in our consideration of Modernity, as it pertains to India, I would like to turn to the Enlightenment and isolate its master ideas in order to see how they have impacted our times and the responses they were met with in Calcutta, the earliest “modern” city of India from the 19th century, moving into the turn of the 20th century.

In this transnational transaction of early modernity, its encounter with India, it may be useful to begin with the very ambiguous nature of the term Enlightenment. A favorite Orientalist trope which remains with us in our conversational reference, is the use of the term to describe the spiritual attainment of yoga – we speak for example of “the Buddha’s Enlightenment”  to translate romantically a specific category in the philosophical and psychological history of India, Buddha’s Nirvana. But in the intellectual history of the west, when we use the term Enlightenment, it also comes with vast hazy overtones and undertones. For one, it invokes a shift in the focus of knowledge, we may think of it as a knowledge revolution, a revolution in the location of knowledge. What it represents is a turning from a certain orientation towards the Transcendent, one in which it is not directly accessible. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, God is authorized by religious institutions, He is accessible only through mediators – churches, priests,  power structures. The Enlightenment turns away from this by affirming a domain of knowledge which is accessible and common to all humanity. With this arises the intuition of a common humanity, what we may call Humanism. Let us ponder this point: Enlightenment thinkers looked for the essence of human knowledge in the lowest common denominator that all human beings can agree upon. They situated this foundation in the senses. As against a mediated knowledge in which we must take someone else’s word for the truth, Enlightenment thinkers sought for a source of  direct or immediate knowledge, something they found in the human senses and reasoning. Human beings share a world due to the commonality of what they can describe through their sense experience and infer through their reasoning on the data of the senses. Therefore, sense knowledge became the primary mode of acquisition of knowledge to this direction or turn or switch from a mediated knowledge.

This line of understanding went further to ask what is the scope or ambit of sense knowledge? This is where the philosophers of the Enlightenment grasped and leveraged the fact that though we take it for granted, there is something miraculous about the world which we receive through our senses and ‘understand’ with our minds. This world when we probe it using our intellect reveals itself as having laws which we can understand. This is indeed a source of profound wonder. It is part of our normal condition but when we stop to think about it, our ability to ‘make sense’ of the material cosmos and to adapt it to our convenience is an unexpected fact of existence. This is something extremely attractive to the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. So, particularly in its early phase, the notion of Reason as a divine power, determining the manifestation of the world and mediating between it and the human being is a key idea of the Enlightenment. We can know the world because the world is rational and because we are also rational. In effect, this represents a change in the location of truth from the Transcendence of God to the immanence of Reason in the world and in human beings. The Biblical adage that man is created in the image of God lends itself well to this kind of understanding where the human being finds its definition in the possession of the Divine Faculty underlying the entire cosmos – ie. Reason This rational focus thus inaugurated a new way of knowing, which is also a new way of being.

The Enlightenment from this point of view would be our ability to arrive at a totality of knowledge using the reason. If we understand this basis of the Enlightenment, we can see the central place occupied by the Knowledge Academy in it. This gives birth to the modern institutions of schooling with the University at its head.  This entire structure of the modern academy, spread across the globe, is intimately interwoven so as to arrive at a culture of knowledge, to give us a totality of the knowledge of the world. This is what may be called the nomos of modern education – the development of a systemic rational omniscience. This international enterprise of knowledge generation is the hidden engine to which modern humanity is yoked. This places demands of standardization on the human understanding of knowledge, its methodology and its boundaries. Without questioning these boundaries, we share this knowledge, we consider it “academic” in our ability to cross-reference each such work of knowledge, we grow on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in the evolution of knowledge thus conceived. We have thus been inducted as a “humanity” into a worldwide enterprise which begins with the Enlightenment.

Just as we find ourselves in an age and a world which we hardly question, an age whose historicity escapes us and a world whose rationality we assume, so we take this knowledge enterprise for granted. To be literate is to be a “knowledge worker” at the center of a global modernity.    Thus, whether we are conscious or not, to be literate is to be yoked, a yoking to the engine of world knowledge, just as we say yoga is a yoking to a structure of undivided consciousness. In the modern world, humanity has been yoked to an enterprise of seeking for the rational omniscience of the Enlightenment, the knowledge which will grant us totality of understanding of the world and ourselves. This yoking has led to certain interesting results. To grasp the scope of these results it is necessary to understand the two sides of this knowledge enterprise.

Knowledge and Power
One aspect of this knowledge is knowledge of the world as we receive it through our senses, in its most material sense. This is the domain of science, primarily what are known as the hard sciences or material sciences, the knowledge of the world as object. But also, and perhaps more centrally if less overtly, this includes the knowledge of the subject, that is, knowledge of ourselves as human beings. This seeking for a knowledge of the subject opens up the field of what we call the human sciences. I am not talking here of the Humanities, which constitute the study of subjective expressions and their evaluation, and which in themselves, in an Age of Science, are obliquely situated with relation to the human sciences. The human sciences constitute our attempts at arriving at a definition of the Human. They include disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, history. These exist in a similar way to the sciences that give us knowledge of the world, to give us knowledge of ourselves. It is as if in the same way as we have embarked on a journey to know fully the laws that run this world, we would also like to know the laws that constitute us as human beings. Thus the human sciences have opened up a certain normative vista which defines us as subjects and which  we hardly think about. In our modern world it is something that characterizes our mode of being, in a deep  sense I would say, differently from the being of people in pre-modern times, in that we have a sense of the human which is different from that of earlier times.

This sense of being has a negative side and a positive side. On the one hand, it implies a crystallization, a reduction of identity. Human beings today are increasingly understood in predictable moulds, behaviorally, socially, culturally. On the other, we have developed a more universal sense of the human; an intuition of the human. Today a human being can immediately recognize the humanity of another human being , irrespective of his/her culture, nationality, race, or history . This is also a legacy of the Enlightenment. Perhaps at the center of the Enlightenment is this new international humanism.

If the domain of Science is the “pure” side of the knowledge enterprise of modernity, there is also another side we need to acknowledge. As an obverse of the “pure” Sciences, this is what may be called the “applied” Sciences. But if the obverse of “purity” is “application,” the traces of its converse, “impurity” are not absent in its implications. Contemporary philosophers, drawing their heritage from Nietzsche  have even posited  that this other side is the primary side, that  latent under the guise of the noble enterprise of “pure” knowledge always lay the more ignoble motive of application, the enterprise of power. Knowledge leads to Power, and perhaps always, Power drives the engine of Knowledge. Whatever I know I can control. Knowledge lends itself to the designs of power, of exploitation, possession and enjoyment. One may question whether indeed it is always the case that the Will to Power hides under every Will to Knowledge. But , at the least we can assert, following  Sri Aurobindo, that  the Vital being of man has its own understanding of the Enlightenment and very quickly aligns the mental enterprise of Knowledge  to its own designs of Power.

The voyages of discovery became the means of colonization. Very quickly, even in the domains of its origin, the discoveries of Science lent themselves to the applications of Technology, to mass production, forced consumption, the  operations of power and the creation of new desires in people so that they may consume what has  been produced in excess. Along with the Knowledge Academy and the international definition of the human, this spawned that other peculiarly modern reality, the global World Market as the field for the play of Power as capital and its accumulation.

Colonialism and the Bengal Renaissance
In India, this mercantile expansionism sought its fortunes and made its firm settlement with the founding of the modern city of Calcutta in the 18th c. But such a founding was impossible without extensive close interactions with Bengalis and the consequent class of Bengali middlemen that arose came to constitute what was called the bhadralok, a new strata of Bengalis educated in the English language and the ways of occidental civilization. From the late 18th c. this bhadralok class began to develop an internal reality of its own through a culture which engaged in a rethinking of what it meant to be Bengali and Indian and a critical assimilation of western modernity. Today, we think of all this as “the past,” a distant and unnecessary detail lost in dusty history books. This sense of irrelevance and distance has also been exacerbated by the peculiar temporality of modernity, in which a sense of rupture mediates between the past and the present, as an ever accelerating material instrumentality determines our sense of time. In terms of the history of the Modern Age, it is true that the Age of Colonialism has passed.  But it isn’t a chapter that has disappeared, its hidden reality continues to determine our times. If we interrogate Colonialism, we find that what is behind it is the geopolitics of domination. The geopolitics of domination has changed its name but it is no less present in our times. It is true that today it is more subtle and cannot express itself with the undisguised nakedness of the heyday of colonialism. Today we call it neo-liberal globalization. What this subtle shift points to is a disjuncture between the enterprise of Knowledge and the enterprise of Power within the Enlightenment, its evidence of the fact that they interact with each other, modifying each other. The designs of Power cannot be as naked as they were before, because the designs of Knowledge have refined the operations of Power. This demonstrates a certain kind and degree of progress within the historical trajectory of the Enlightenment, an evidence of the ongoing complexity of the history of modernity.

Thus, the modern age came upon India in the guise of colonialism, securing its global capitalist drive with the settlement of a modern urban center, Calcutta from the 18th c. And with it came a new class of Bengalis, who were necessary not only to its mercantile designs but its civilizational ambition, as native informants in the institutional nexus of Knowledge and Power with which the Enlightenment proceeded in its world expansionism. But to put it thus would be to see it only from one side of its complex reality. It would be to deny agency to the Bengali middleman, overlooking his resistance and selective assimilation of the ways of colonialism and modernity. From the late 18th c., one sees a many-sided critical engagement with modernity among the bhadralok class of Calcutta. Many scholars have analyzed this as a cultural engagement with  colonial domination and an initiation of the process of nationalism. But the rethinking that began in the 18th c. and ran through the entire 19th century went much deeper than the stirrings of political independence, opposing colonialism with a predictable nationalism. This rethinking is better seen as a critique of post-Enlightenment modernity. This is what constitutes the post-colonial potential of the Bengal Renaissance, its continuing legacy. If we investigate this aspect of the Bengal Renaissance today, two hundred years from its inception, we rediscover its fertility. It is for us to re-open the pages of that chapter and probe its answers, answers and approaches that may be better adapted to our times than when they were given.

The Bengal Renaissance has been seen as a complex movement that has both revivalist and reformist tendencies in it. Of these, the reformist tendencies arose in alignment with the forces of modernity. An important strand of the Bengal Renaissance welcomed modernity as something to embrace, except for the oppressive aspects of colonialism. Many of these thinkers felt that colonialism was a blessing because it brought the gifts of an ‘enlightened civilization’ to India. According to them, the oppressive aspects of colonialism were in contradiction to the enlightened principles espoused by the colonizers, and they could be contested on the grounds of these principles. This was the position of those who were later called the Moderates. The Moderates sought to appeal to the conscience of the colonizer, to change the conditions of inequality and oppression wherever they were seen to be practiced. A variant strain was constituted by those who embraced modernity conditionally, and rejected colonialism. Both these strains could be called reformist. On the other side of the drive to reform were the revivalist forces. These were conservative elements who felt threatened by change and by what were understood to be “foreign” elements. The tendency here was to revive past forms of culture and religion so as to resist the forces of modernity.

Interestingly, if we study the major figures of the Bengal Renaissance, we see that most of them demonstrated a mixture of these reformist and revivalist tendencies in a close braiding. In this kind of internal dialog, the reformative tendency was applied not merely to one’s own culture but became a critical force which challenged colonialism and the contradictions of modernity and the revivalist tendency was not merely a call to repeat ancient forms and customs but a new birth or renaissance engaged with modernity. Here, I would like to isolate some forms of response which I consider to be central to modernity, seen as a derivative of the Enlightenment, in terms of these two tendencies of reform and revival.

The first of these comes in response to the spirit of Humanism which is intrinsic to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ideal is based on an understanding of all human beings as equal possessors of Reason, seen as the ultimate principle which pervades the Universe. I would say, this is the most powerful contributing factor that reformist tendencies open up in Bengal of that time, i.e., the acknowledgement of the fact that all human beings are equal. This profound wave of thought, sentiment and idealism enters as a strain into the Bengal Renaissance at a very early stage. It is present in most of its thinkers and has a variety of repercussions. One of these is the idea that whatever has created inequalities among human beings, such as class, gender and caste hierarchies should be eradicated. The Young Bengal movement of Henry Vivian Derozio (1809-1831) is an example of this kind of reformist tendency. Another approach to the same perceived inequalities is a rethinking of cultural behaviors and customs so as to make them egalitarian. This was the revivalist or more properly, renascent idea, which often worked through etymology and genealogy to demonstrate the historical bases of cultural transformations leading to forces of division for the play of power. These thinkers pointed to some nugget of truth within traditional norms which could be re-established within the normative frame of modernity. A good example of this kind of rethinking is provided by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who reinterpreted caste through Vedanta, writing about it in terms of the professional division of society and soul capacity.

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) entered into and furthered this discourse. He provided an interpretation of caste which went beyond professional necessity to an analysis of the soul, substantiating a theory of the soul as a form of becoming or evolution, resting on four lines of manifestation of the powers of the Divine Shakti, the four Mother Powers of wisdom, strength, exchange and service.[i] This reinterpretation of the idea of caste while rejecting hereditary and hierarchical notions, brings to the front a mystical idea resting on traditional sources such as the Gita and Tantra, but re-interpreting these in terms of the dignity of all human work and the discovery of the dynamic inner proclivities of individual expression.

The importance of this move lies in its revision of the bases of Enlightenment humanism. It demonstrates a transformative ideal that, while accepting the modern premise of human equality, displaces its rational bias to accommodate the spiritual history of India. In his later writings, such as The Human Cycle, written in Pondicherry in the second decade of the 20th c., Sri Aurobindo continued to engage Enlightenment humanism in this revisionary manner, demonstrating the ideal of humanism to be realizable only through the spiritual experience of the soul of humanity in all human beings.[ii]

Again, as we have seen, Rationality is the watchword of the Enlightenment, its very foundation. In his displacements, Sri Aurobindo does not reject rationality but exploits its own uncertainties to indicate ways to the experience of greater clarities. In this kind of exploitation, Sri Aurobindo is not the first nor the only thinker. Indeed, we find that most of the principal thinkers of the Bengal Renaissance strongly embrace rationality. This is an important revisionary factor because the Enlightenment was, in fact, largely a reaction against the irrationalism of religion in Europe and in the colonized domain of India, a purely revivalist impulse could very well have asserted a spirit of pre-modern religion that rejected reason. The Enlightenment came as a reaction to what have been called the Dark Ages in Europe. The Dark Ages were the ages of superstition and religion, of the control of Knowledge and Power by the Church, and, putting their weight on an authority which could not be universally verified, they were seen as irrational. Hence a gulf was dug deep between the modern age based on Reason and the pre-modern world which was irrational. This gulf is still with us. In fact, we may surmise that the reason we have not been able to engage seriously with the solutions that were opened up during the Bengal Renaissance, is the continuing presence of that gulf in our times.

During the Bengal Renaissance an attempt was made to close that gulf. Rationality and spirituality walked hand in hand. From the late 18th c., whether we consider Ram Mohun Roy (1774-1833), Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), the foundations of the Brahmo movement, or whether we look at Vivekananda, or later Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) or Sri Aurobindo, in all of them there was an attempt to build a bridge between rationality and the life of the spirit. Once more, in this, these thinkers were not creating in a vacuum, but rekindling the rich intellectual discursive tradition of darshana (yoga philosophy), bhashya (commentary) and vitarka (debate), now translated into a hybrid engagement with an occidental philosophical discourse. Sri Aurobindo’s contribution here too, is profound because he draws close attention to the transition between reason and what transcends it. He demonstrated the limits of Reason, why the Enlightenmet was blighted by principled internal conflict and impotence in the achievement of its own goals of knowledge. Like Immanuel Kant, who used the tools of logic to demonstrate the limits of Reason, Sri Aurobindo engaged the discourses of Philosophy and Psychology to work out the properties and office of Reason. He then indicated the transition from the power of rationality to the power of a spiritual rationality, a supra-rationality, through the mediation of an intuitive mind. In this, he critiqued the mainstream Enlightenment notion of a static rational definition of the human by translating the premises of Indian yoga and echoing Nietzsche at the same time – “Man is a transitional being.”[iii] This transitionality opens up a post-humanist possibility, seen by Sri Aurobindo as the transformation of human Reason to an individualized cosmic Mind and what he calls Supermind. Thus, Sri Aurobindo, in his engagements with the discursive grounds of the Enlightenment, demonstrated its fulfillment through the marriage of rationality and spirit. But this discourse found its voice in Sri Aurobindo due to the ground prepared by earlier thinkers of the Bengal Renaisaance. The Bengal Renaissance provided the rich soil and Sri Aurobindo planted the tree which yields the flower of an alternate fulfillment to the Enlightenment. Though we have largely swept aside (or under) this discourse, a contemporary postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment makes its consideration possible and urgent.

This aspect of the Bengal Renaissance seemed to get attenuated and finally disappear from the 1920s. As the movement of cultural critique gave way to the political imperative of independence, the gap between the rational and the irrational on which the Enlightenment was premised re-asserted itself through a division into a political left and a right – socialism or religious orthodoxy, the first fashioned in the moulds of an occidental humanism and the second after politicized indigenous religions. Reform and revival parted ways and reverted to a more simplistic anatagonism.

Social Concern
But the Bengal Renaissance has other lessons to teach us. Along with the ideas of the power of rationality and the equality of human beings, as a corollary of these, comes social concern, concern with the emancipation of downtrodden people, women, subjugated classes and castes.  This social concern also becomes an important and ubiquitous undercurrent of the Bengal Renaissance. We have already touched on some of these concerns in considering humanism and the caste system. But this concern finds more active manifestations, in which a revisionary transformation of Hinduism is mobilized to the benefit of social welfare. We find here personalities such as Swami Vivekananda, with his social service programs, introducing ideas on the emancipation of the downtrodden in terms of Hindu spiritual practice – the service of God, Narayana, in humans – Naranarayana. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894) is another important early figure of the Bengal Renaissance who couched an impulse towards social and political betterment in terms of a revisionary social spirituality.

In all these engagements with the prerogatives of the Enlightenment, whether in the concern with  rationality, the equality of human beings, social service or other normative vectors of modernity, we find the Bengal Renaissance responding with an attempt at articulation which preserves the cultural history of varieties of Indian spirituality. Here I would agree with recent thinkers such as Wilhelm Halbfass that in all these instances of engagement, what results is a transformed Indian discourse.[iv] This discourse of what has often been called Neo-Vedanta is castigated as a derived Orientalism by some contemporary critics, but I see this as a productive force whose discursive energy has found a place in modernity’s voice and whose potential is hardly spent. In these engagaments the Bengal Renaissance takes a resistant and transformative stand on post-Enlightenment modernity. If one may say, echoing Nietzsche, that the modern age begins with the death of God, we may propose an alternate discourse arising from Bengal of the late 18th to early 20th centuries, in which modernity is premised in a new birth of God. Such a birth is no more one of a God who stands at the head of religions, claiming a fascist right on all humanity, but a God who awaits each human being as the ever-extending horizon of his/her own self-exceeding, a God more akin to Nietzsche’s Overman. If such an ideal could be said to stand at the head of the contemporary critique of modernity in the words of Nietzsche, a concern with its praxis meets us in the voices of the Bengal Renaissance. We encounter this from an early stage, in lineages such as Ram Mohun Roy, Debendranath and Rabindranath Tagore, or Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Vivekananda and his collaborators, or with isolated personalities who assimilate what exists or create new ideas, such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee or Sri Aurobindo. In all these voices, the ideal of a spiritual reconstitution of individual and social life is powerfully present as an alternative form of living modernity. It seeks to express itself not outside of the modern but within the modern and not outside of life but as a transformed definition of life. Each of these figures represents a powerful social force through which a spiritual practice expresses itself in its own way. Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to this core concern of the Bengal Renaissance is perhaps the most profound, in that he heralds a new age of spiritual experimentation and development which treats  all life as yoga.

It is important to note that this articulation straddles two discourses – reformist and revivalist, modernist and traditionalist – and is revisionary to both. We have touched on its contribution to the discourse of modernity, but this also implied a large scale redefinition of what we call Hinduism. This is not clearly perceived, since there has been the rise of Hindu nationalism in India since the 1980s and many contemporary commentators have attributed the origins of Hindutva to the Bengal Renaissance. This is far from the truth. As an interrelated discourse, what the Bengal Renaissance introduces is a creative redefinition of Hinduism. This is because they inflect the burgeoning history of Indic spirituality in terms of modernist concerns. As I have mentioned this discourse is conscious of the fascist implications of a God who claims unity through division. Its locus is therefore stretched from the start between the horns of universalism and plurality. In Sri Ramakrishna, for example, we find a mystic who can embrace any discipline or sectarian formulation of spirituality and arrive at an ecstatic realization from it, without the need to hierarchize or structure into a metaphysics. In Vivekananda, it is true, that the urge towards metaphysics moves towards the formulation of a universalist Advaita Vedanta, but this is powerfully tempered with the message of individual freedom in seeking and spiritual practice. Again, in the Brahmo lineage, we find this braiding of universalism and pluralism. We find Ram Mohun Roy dialoguing throughout his adult life with Christians and Muslims, attempting to demonstrate the convergences of all spiritual approaches in a Vedantic monotheism, a grappling with plurality so as to bring it under a universalist frame. We find a much subtler approach to the same dialog between universalism and pluralism with Rabindranath Tagore, and so on even with a number of lesser known figures.

The two most powerful and popular cultural histories of spiritual practice in Bengal are Vaishanavism and Shaktism. Naturally, these two approaches inflect the writings of the Bengal Renaissance strongly, but in new and revised ways. Of course, we know the case of Sri Ramakrishna, who attained to the spiritual realizations of Vasihnavism and Shakta Tantra but these two sectarian practices make their way into several other major figures of the time, in the writings of Bankim Chandra and Sri Aurobindo, for example. If we look at the origins of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, his Record of Yoga, we find the central place both Krishna and Kali have in it;[v] and decades later, we find him state in a correspondence that the two names Krishna and Kali arising together during the practice of his yoga, provide a powerful sign towards the transformation of consciousness. Thus, it is this ability of taking localized practices and relating them to each other in syntheses, or making them universal that constitutes a highly creative contribution of the Bengal Renaissance and Sri Aurobindo’s work constitutes a central part of this.

Universality and Plurality
Indeed, it is this dialog between universalism and plurality which is initiated in the Bengal Renaissance, something fraught with difficulty. It is much easier to define a national identity around a single ideology and a privileged history. This is what Hindutva attempts to do to the rich and complex history of Indic spiritual practice. The Bengal Renaissance, on the other hand, was largely creative and progressive in seeing this long cultural discourse as a living and mutating one, something lending itself to innovation in different contexts and demanding ongoing adaptations in the present. This redefinition of Hinduism was one which made it evolutionary, not something which embraced only a specific ideology but one which engaged with all histories of spiritual practice, making up the fabric of its unfinished body. This indeed, is how Sri Aurobindo presented his definition of Sanatan Dharma in the famous Uttarpara speech (1909).[vi]

Sri Aurobindo saw clearly that the difficulty of defining a national identity in terms of religious ideology went back to the limitations of the mind. The mind divides reality in terms of binaries. Thus, we can dwell on unity and we can dwell on infinity, but the mind cannot hold these  radically different realities at the same time. But the Brahman is both one and infinite. Hence we see that though Universalism seems to be an all-inclusive idea, what this implies to the mind is problematic, because true universality, or more properly integrality, is not within the power of human reason to grasp. In the contemporary academic discipline of religious studies, this problem is very clearly acknowledged through the use of the term ‘inclusivism’. As against ‘exclusivism,’ which refers to religions establishing their identity by denying relevance to other religions, or dubbing them as satanic, ‘inclusivism’ proceeds by subordinating other religions under itself, a kind of ideological totalitarianism. The ideological construct of Hinduism, under mental compulsion to define itself in terms of a national identity, introduces this difficulty into modern India. However, this mental over-determination is not recent in origin, its roots may be seen in the attempts of the Vedantic acharyas, particularly Shankara, to define a hegemonic Hinduism in terms of Advaita Vedanta , perhaps as early as the 9th c.

Thus ‘inclusivist’ religious ideologies appropriate to themselves the right over all other religions. This can be seen as a peculiar problem of a universalism forced to define itself in terms of a mental taxonomy, which is one of the world organizing features of post-Enlightenment modernity. The hegemonic construct of Advaita Vedanta lends itself eminently to this ordering paradigm. In terms of the Bengal Renaissance, though it is true that Vivekananda privileged such an Advaita Vedanta as a “national” definition of Hindusim, as mentioned earlier, there was enough richness and complexity in his approach to spirituality to render this construct dialectical. However, it is in time conflated and identified with his teachings and normalized by later nationalistic philosophers and teachers such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) or Swami Chinmayananda (1916-1993). The problem with this definition is its erasure of the irreducible difference between spiritual experiences. There is something that escapes every formula in any approach. Just as human beings are distinct – though we may intuit the common humanity in every human being, each individual is unique – so each name, relationship and experience of the Divine has its irreducible reality, a unique form of the Supreme. This mentally irreconcilable plurality forms part of the mystic richness of the spiritual approach initiated in the Bengal Renaissance, and given a philosophical and psychological formulation to by Sri Aurobindo.

Further contemplation may bring us closer to the solution proposed by Sri Aurobindo. This contemplation can come to us from the Gita’s Viswarupa Darshan. In this section of the Gita, Arjuna asks to see Sri Krishna in his original form, undisguised by the Ignorance. Sri Krishna says to Arjuna that this vision is beyond human capacity but he will grant it to Arjuna by giving him “divine eyes” to see. He then provides Arjuna with a new sight and bestows on him the Viswarupa Darshan. In this darshan, Arjuna sees the ultimately paradoxical image. He sees something which is formless and infinite – a mass of radiance extended on all sides without beginning, middle or end – and simultaneously he sees all possible beings, past present and future present in this Being, being born acting and dying. Such a co-existence of unity and infinity, or of formlessness and all possibilities of form or of a static eternity and a dynamic perpetuity is bewildering beyond measure to the mental consciousness of Arjuna and he entreats Arjuna to revert to his “universal” form, all-encompassing with four hands. Of course, an ‘inclusivism’ can easily be derived from this description and this too has happened, a theistic inclusivism, which subsumes all possible experiences under the rubric of Avatar Krishna. But what Sri Aurobindo sees in this kind of image is a post-humanist possibility. What Arjuna has been granted with the Viswarupa is not so much a proclamation regarding the avatara as the possibility of an experience which surpasses the limitations of the mental consciousness and heralds the evolution of the overmental or supramental species. The Gita being a book of yoga, it is clear that such an evolutionary possibility is pointed to as an eventual outcome of human praxis.

Sri Aurobindo provides a philosophical basis for this form of experience in his written works such as The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga. In a chapter in The Life Divine on “The Triple Status of the Supermind,” he develops the form of supramental experience as a co-existence of transcendental, universal and individual being-experiences.[vii] Similarly, in the last chapter of The Synthesis of Yoga, titled “Towards the Supramental Time Vision,” he discusses both the psychology and philosophy of supramental time experience, dealing with the question of the co-existence of eternity and temporality within the same experience.[viii] Here he discusses how the supramental existence, operating in time and outside it, can maintain its reality as a becoming as well as a knowing of all possibility. This is achieved through degrees of self-concealment, or rather, co-exiting modalities of self-access within the same being. At once, there is all revelation in eternity and the  immanence of this knowledge working out as creative skill in time. This range of coincident consciousness is natural to supermind and is possible through the development of human consciousness extending beyond its mental limits.  A transition to such a realization is mediated by an expansion of human capacity in terms of an infinite openness to God experience, allowing pluralism to prepare the ground for the supramental experience in which all possibilities of the divine may co-exist. Such a solution is not merely a repetition of the assertions of the past of Indian spirituality, but a pointer to a post-humanist future.

Body Without Organs
In this post-humanist orientation, the work of Sri Aurobindo converges with the thoughts of certain postmodern seers. We may consider, for example, Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Deleuze  pushed the boundaries of thinking about the experience of radical plurality. He concluded that such an experience could be found only beyond reason and beyond present ‘natural’ human ability, but it is within our aspiration as an expansion of capacity. To Deleuze, the capacity for infinite variety of experience constituted ‘the earth’ as a universal Body-without-Organs (BwO).[ix] This ‘ground’ would be open to all experience, yet it would be one in its infinite expansiveness and productive creativity (the full earth). Though such a condition of experience would be beyond present human comprehension, it is latent as immanent possibility of evolution and one could prepare for it by increasing the body’s capacity for experience. According to this, any experience, met with by the body’s expanded capacity, would be an experience of bliss, belonging to a scale of intensities. This praxis of preparation comes close to Sri Aurobindo’s experiments in the Record of Yoga where he attempts to turn all experiences into delight through the transformation of the body’s capacity. It is through transformative preparations of this kind that we can develop the capacity to experience a consciousness which is supramental. According to Sri Aurobindo, the structures for this do not exist in human beings at present, but this does not mean that the definition of the human is bound within existing structures. At the same time, without aspiration and practice/preparation, they will not appear, as if by miracle. Sri Aurobindo, in his essay on the Viswarupa Darshan points out though it is through a kind of “miracle” that Arjuna is granted the supramental vision by Krishna, such a “miracle” is overpowering for Arjuna. Hence, a much longer preparation of yogic practice is necessary to bring humanity to the expansion of capacity necessary for this evolutionary transition to a consciousness beyond the mind, which resolves unity and plurality.[x]

So far, in our consideration of the transformations in Humanism, Rationality or Religion, we have skirted around the category of the Nation. The Nation forms a central concern in any consideration of the Bengal Renaissance; indeed, the Bengal Renaissance has often been seen mainly as a form of cultural nationalism. Here too, we find the discourse opened up by the thinkers of this period, though preparing the ground for nationalism, also providing interesting critiques highlighting its problematic nature. In contemporary postcolonial thinking, several of these problems have been articulated with clarity.  This is not to under-rate the need of a subjugated people to rise as a collective and assert their own right to exist. The central problem associated with such collective movements is the problem of identity politics – in what name is collective unity to be orchestrated? Any collective unity becomes a contested domain in which a number of interests vie to lay claim to the ideological definition of the group. “Nation” in this sense, to use Benedict Anderson’s term is an “imagined community,” a reified category made up of selections and suppressions.[xi] Such an identity builds its reality through the creation of a subjective sense of belonging, something achieved by the use of culture. Thus, the Bengal Renaissance, as a cultural movement consolidating a subjective consciousness in the face of political and cultural subjugation, can be seen pre-eminently in these nationalistic terms.

We discover that from an early period this cultural nationalism sought to focus attention on the unified territory and history of India as a substantialized agent, Mother India or Bharat Mata. Among the earliest articulations of this sentiment is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Ananda Math (1882), in which a band of revolutionary sannyasis take arms against injustice in the name of the nation seen as the Divine Mother. Ananda Math also introduced the song of adoration to this Mother, Bande Mataram. This image of the nation (along with Bankim’s song) became very popular in Bengal during the early 20th c, by dint of its spread through political propaganda and cultural dissemination. Sri Aurobindo was among those of the later generations of the Bengal Renaissance who were deeply influenced by Bankim’s vision and actively promoted a form of nationalism in which Indians were asked to perceive the nation as the living form of the Divine Mother. He and his revolutionary collaborators published their rousing articles in a journal by the name of Bande Mataram. Songs addressing the Divine Mother, adapted from the rich tradition of Bengali Kali and Durga worship, carrying obvious nationalist overtones appeared in large numbers, including in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976). Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) painted a poster of Bharat Mata which was used in a political rally. The practice of Durga Puja (worship of the warrior Mother) in public, particularly in Calcutta, was introduced as a quasi-nationalist call to arms as well as a celebration of collective identity, a practice which continues to this day. All this has caused some contemporary critics to see this aspect of the cultural nationalism of the Bengal Renaissance to be Hindu dominated and fascist in potential. However, as Sugata Bose has pointed out, the image of Bharat Mata translated hazily between regional (Banga Mata) and national (Bharat Mata) realities in this early phase of Indian nationalism. As a regional Bengali movement, it drew on sources of popular sentiment which had developed a long history of syncretic devotional practice transcending sectarian or religious boundaries.[xii] Testimony to this fact is also borne by the large number of national songs addressed to the Divine Mother written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, a Bengali Muslim, who is today considered the national poet of Bangaldesh; as well as by the large corpus of songs using Divine Mother imagery which were revived in the later movement for political independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan (1971).

Moreover, in a large number of its personalities, the problems associated with a fascistic  nationalism were well understood and critiqued. A contemporary postcolonial scholar has used the term “strategic essentialism” to speak of the possibility of subjugated individuals coming together to contest classes or other large-scale group identities which oppress them.[xiii] Whereas a simplistic essentialism implies an ahistorical set of characteristics and “ideologemes” which are said to define a nation, a “strategic essentialism” implies the dynamic consciousness of the political use and constructed nature of such characteristics, accepted by a group for its self-definition as a means to consolidate identity. “Strategic essentialism” implies the continuous presence of self-critique within the identity construct, a consciousness towards the undoing of hegemonic essentialisms which suppress minority voices and push towards the erasure of individual and local agencies and histories. As the name itself suggests, the Bengal Renaissance, as an early movement of cultural nationalism, was largely conscious of shifting between the prerogatives of regional and national culture. Along with this was the larger awareness of a civilizational critique, which might be called trans-national and/or international. This awareness of shifting boundaries and negotiations between micro and macro communities, or lived and imagined communities of various cultural characteristics, pervades the discourse of the Bengal Renaissance, allowing for a greater cosmopolitanism in individual creative agency. The plural space of early urban Calcutta allowed for a rich mix of transactions and translations relating to regionalism, nationalism, pan-Asianism and international Orientalism, opening up networks of affiliation and fraternity which allowed for a dynamic complexity in the construction of national subjectivity.

The category of “nation” is also a peculiarly modern form with its basis in the Enlightenment and its incipient ideology of arriving at a single unified description of the cosmos, what in today’s terms is called a TOE (Theory-of-Everything). This is why the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has referred to our age as the “Age of the World Picture.”[xiv] Such an epistemological drive  proceeds by creating classifications which tend to become more and more inclusive and normalize themselves as absolute. With the will-to-power which drives this knowledge-enterprise, the world-making endeavor of the Enlightenment may be well captured in the contemporary image of an omni-database, a kind of universal arrangement of data, in which all nameable entities are put in their slots along with their definable properties so that they can be manipulated at will. Such an image leads to Heidegger’s designation of “standing reserve” as a characteristic feature of modern ontology – a drive to translate all things into static manipulable “resources.”[xv] This idea of putting in place, of classifying according to an absolute scheme is profoundly problematic due to the fact that any “universal” perspective represents a contest of power to claim itself as truth.

Once more we return to the problem of universalism and pluralism. We may even say that there can be many possible universalisms. But the Enlightenment is premised on a single absolute universalism, the System. Thus, the notion of systematicity is intrinsic to the Enlightenment. These underlying epistemological ideas characterize modern understanding. A major discipline in the contemporary academy is Systems Theory. This discipline has been loosely classed as an inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary discipline, but it may be more properly addressed as an omni-disciplinary discipline. Behind it is the late 20th c. idea of modular assemblage, the development of a coherent model for the universe by creating seamless interfaces across the boundaries that separate the specialized disciplines that bring us our knowledge of the world (object) and the human (subject) – the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology and the other humanistic disciplines. If we bring them all together, we will find the links and create one picture of the universe. This is the ambition of Systems Theory.

This systematicity is present not only in the knowledge enterprise of modernity but also in its drive for power. The geopolitics of domination is a systematicity related to the creation of a unified political and economic world order. A world order implies something at the centre and other things at various distances from the center, leading to its peripheries, so that they can be granted different degrees of agency and dominated to different degrees. This world ordering imagination finds its convenient handles in the idea of ‘nations’. To arrive at such changeless and absolute classifications of people sharing territory and history, it becomes necessary to think of them in reified terms outside their lived experiences as individuals. Individuals with a collective history share a living sense of togetherness. Individual “Indians,” for example, carry their own living sense of a cultural history of togetherness.  They share symbols, practices, local histories. This constitutes their living social reality as a population, but if an absolute reality is to be sought for a people over-riding individual reality of social memory and lived experience, this can be orchestrated in two ways. One is to posit an ahistorical essence of the nation, something transcending any conglomeration of people and their histories. That is the ‘nation soul’. The second is a political and administrative structure imposed on the people. That is what we call the ‘nation state’. Thus, it is between the ‘nation soul’ and the ‘nation state’ that the Enlightenment project effectuates itself in its integration of nations.

Nation Soul
Like several other categories we have considered, which arose as a result of the cultural engagement between indigenous spiritual histories and modernity in the Bengal Renaissance, the idea of a nation soul took its hybrid form as a national reality. Though today, there is an attempt to claim an archaic origin of this idea within Indian history, it was not present in its theorized form prior to the modern period. Certainly, there are references to a quasi-national consciousness, going back to the Vedas, as in the Hymn to the Divine Word, Vak, where the Goddess is identified as rashtri, the Nation-Mother or in the Puranic idea of the subcontinent united by the distributed limbs of Sati after her self-immolation, but these are sporadic and nascent ideas. The properly theorized idea of “nation soul” in modern times makes its appearance in late 18th century Germany. It is voiced in the writings of a philosopher named Johann Herder (1744-1803) and soon, through Herder’s contemporary, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel takes Herder’s idea and makes it the cornerstone of his Philosophy of History which is a theory of evolution consonant with the ideology of the Enlightenment.[xvi] One could argue in fact, that Hegel’s Philosophy of History provides the best philosophical description for the teleology of the Enlightenment. In Hegel’s scheme, it is Reason (he calls this Consciousness) which is God, trapped in matter. Matter has laws but these laws are not self-conscious, they are expressed unconsciously. But they evolve in time creating forms that have greater and greater power of consciousness, leading to the human being, who has rational choice. For Hegel, the human being is the pinnacle of this evolution of Reason. As we know, according to the Enlightenment idea (and the Renaissance which preceded it), Man, as possessor of Reason, is the measure of all things. Hegel’s Philosophy of History then proceeds to trace the further evolution of Reason through human collectivities, the nation-souls.

For those who know of the evolutionary philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, we can see how close, and yet how subtly different Hegel’s idea is from that of Sri Aurobindo. At the start of this discussion, I spoke of the changes in epochs being guided by what Hegel calls the Zeitgeist, the Time-Spirit according to Sri Aurobindo. According to Hegel, the change of an age is related to specific expressions of Rationality. Reason proceeds through dialectical experiments in different milieus, the nation-souls, bringing to the social surface certain contradictions which are subconscious within it. But once a contradiction is solved in a certain set of people, according to Hegel’s philosophy, the Time-Spirit leaves this “nation” and proceeds to another milieu to work out further possibilities. Each nation is thus chosen to express a stage in the evolution of Reason and remains forever stuck in that stage after it has served its purpose. For Hegel, India and China expressed two of the most primitive conditions in this history of the Zeitgeist, because they represented solutions to problems which arose prior to the appearance of political self-consciousness. They were thus doomed to remain as static preserves of essentialized identity. On the other hand, the same Zeitgeist advanced finally to Europe of the 18th century, where it achieved the fullness of its expression. Hegel’s idea encompasses what he calls ‘the end of History’, a term that is making its reappearance in recent times in the writings of some philosophers, e.g., Francis Fukuyama (1952-), who argues in his book The End of History and the Last Man, that the global universalization of the political form of liberal democracy and the world market constitute the finality of history as an experimental process seeking perfection and stabilization.[xvii] There are many others who have echoed this sense of culmination of Enlightenment teleology in our times, as a fulfillment of Georg Hegel’s prophecy of the power of Rationality articulating itself in its fullness in a collective Godhood of Omniscience, Omnipotence  and Omnipresence. Any deeper genealogical perusal of such ideas takes us back surely to the Eurocentric roots of the Enlightenment, its neo-colonial global world order and geopolitics of domination.

In passing, we may note the apparent similarity between Hegel’s Metaphysics and Sri Aurobindo’s idea of evolution as stated in The Life Divine. Though a similar process of the Involution-Evolution of Consciousness forms the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s theory, Consciousness does not equate to Rationality in Sri Aurobindo’s case, nor does it eschew Reason. As mentioned earlier, the hybrid form of this Metaphysics straddles two discourses, that of western speculative Metaphysics and of the Indian dasrhana-yoga tradition, which invites subjective verification through the praxis of yoga. This dependence on praxis renders Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary theory closer to Nietzsche’s project of self-transcendence. Even prior to the human with its location in terms of a “reversal of consciousness’ and agency in his scheme, the steps of the evolution are not continuous and determinable but having discontinuities and processes involving agency. Finally, the source of Consciousness in the evolution reveals itself to be the Supermind, with its transcendental freedom from cosmic conditions and ability to transform them, as discussed above. In this cosmic evolution, souls (including individual and collective souls, such as nation-soul) have a part to play, but none of these are static. We will consider this in some more detail below.

Thus it is Germany of the 18th/19th c. that we find the beginnings of the theory of “nation soul,” serving the ordering impulse of the Enlightenment. Such a nation soul is static. This idea of the nation soul migrates rapidly to the rest of Europe and often takes a dangerous form when it associates itself with colonialism and racism. As we know, Germany itself was hugely infected by racist essentalisms, leading ultimately to the World War II. The idea of nation soul, a subjective essence for the German nation developed a strong resonance in its thought. It is present before Hegel in philosophers like Kant and continues after him in personalities such as Nietzsche and Heidegger. This is why Nietzsche was heralded as the source of  Nazi ideology, though this was far from the truth. Nietzsche did not support racism, but the notion of a superior subjective essence was strong in German culture.

An acknowledgement of this fact with its promises and dangers is what we find in Sri Aurobindo’s powerful and seminal chapter ‘True and False Subjectivism’ in The Human Cycle.[xviii] This chapter is primarily aimed at Germany but it also addresses the general idea of the nation-soul for the future so as to distinguish the salutary possibility from the peril that nations may avoid falling into such a trap. The idea of the nation soul lends itself to the purposes of nationalism and makes its entry into the Bengal Renaissance at this time. This idea is not fully theorized in other thinkers of the Bengal Renaissance but is present as the notion of a cultural identity independent of the civilizational norms of  the colonizer and as the dispenser of the destiny of the Indian people – what Rabindranath Tagore calls Bharata Bhagya Vidhata in his famous song Jana Gana Mana, which became later the National Anthem of independent India. We have also noted earlier the equation of this nation soul with the image of Mother India. We find a continuation of the matristic and spiritual ideas of this image and its form of address in the yogic praxis and teaching of Sri Aurobindo. Thus, Sri Aurobindo does not reject the idea of the nation soul but theorizes it so as to introduce a variant response to the Eurocentric discourse. The reality given by him to the nation soul is not that of a simplistic ahistorical essence. This is something to be noted, since the idea of “India” as an eternal Hindu nation has made its appearance in today’s world with religious nationalism, staking its claim of identity on the nation soul.

The idea of nation soul in Sri Aurobindo has a basis in historicity. In Sri Aurobindo’s yoga philosophy, there are two aspects to the nation soul, just as there are two aspects to the human soul – a psychic entity and a psychic being. The psychic entity is an unformed matrix or reservoir of psychic energy out of which, through historical processes, a psychic personality or psychic being gets formed. These historical processes are determined by the relationship between soul and nature. Again, as we saw with the cosmopolitanism of the Bengal Renaissance, collective entities are not restricted to nations. So, too, in Sri Aurobindo’s idea of a cosmic evolution, the collective soul is not restricted to nations, and includes sub-national and supra-national conscious agencies. Thus, one may speak of a pan-Asian soul, the soul of Asia or a regional soul, the soul of Bengal. These souls develop a cultural orientation over time. But this orientation is not static, it is in a process of continuous becoming. As a historical discourse, each collective soul develops a specificity and also a perspective towards the universal. Each such perspective develops through its interactions with other perspectives and in this growth, moves towards an international culture and human unity.[xix]

As in the process of reconciling universalism and pluralism through praxis of individual consciousness, such a collective process ultimately rests on human  agency if it’s trajectory is not to be derailed either through hegemonic universalisms (such as the “world-picture” of the Enlightenment) or through anarchic chaos (as in rabid contested particularisms). A modern commentator, Benjamin Barber has characterized this dangerous polarization as the contemporary scenario of Jihad vs. MacWorld.[xx] Sri Aurobindo’s thought was prescient of this danger and holds out instead a solution which privileges cultural histories in confederated unities of dynamic interaction in a post-human becoming as discussed earlier.[xxi] To understand this kind of collective process in terms of spiritual praxis is a contribution of Sri Aurobindo to the journey of the expansion of consciousness in the world.

Modernity and Community
One of the more subtle contributions of the Bengal Renaissance was its critique and alternative formulations of the social dimension of modernity. A village sociality was largely self-governing in small-scale communities whose members interacted in the flow of a life in which the boundaries between work and play, public and private were porous. The modern colonial city was organized and administered instead under the imperative of colonial governmentality, through taxonomic grids for productivity, utility and control. The construction of the native subject through these practices were contested by a variety of strategies devised during the Bengal Renaissance. These ranged from creative mistranslations of both native and colonial terms so as to elude or satirize the classificatory intent of modernity, a thriving vernacular literature normalizing a new communitarian modernity, native architectural practices in which the home and the street were not strictly demarcated so as to allow porous interactions, alternative descriptions of the city in terms of neighborhoods utilizing a quasi-rural functionality, social practices such as adda, etc.[xxii] At a more clearly articulated level of this discourse, the yoking of colonial and modern subjects to the post-Enlightenment imperative of knowledge and capital production was contested by a model of sociality built around human self-exploration and expression in loose forms of communitarian life. Two of the thinkers who took this discourse furthest, were Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. They both saw that, given the ubiquitous world-wide sweep of modernity, such an alternative destining could only be secure in islands dedicated to subjective exploration where the expansion of the inner life would provide a selective filter for the assimilation and reconstitution of modernity. In this, they both rethought the pre-modern form of the ashrama, a communitarian habitus of continuous learning and spiritual growth, in engagement with the forces of the world. Tagore’s ashrama of universal man-making, Visva-Bharati, at Shantiniketan and Sri Aurobindo’s ashrama at Pondicherry may be seen as the materialized topoi of these creative social ideas. To what extent these strategies and experiments have been successful in their intent in the long run is questionable, but the compromised realities of these social forms today cannot be seen as lack of insight of their founders, since continuous subjective engagement, critique and furtherance by living milieus would be needed to keep them alive, something dependent on succeeding generations.

In summing up, we find that the Bengal Renaissance initiated a wide and deep engagement with post-Enlightenment ideology, both in its more immediate expression as colonialism and in the global teleology of modernity. Within this discourse, we find the contribution of Sri Aurobindo as one which provided a penetrating critique and profound alternatives. These alternatives were not isolated solutions tangential to modernity or anachronistic regressions to the pre-modern. By demonstrating the limits of the Enlightenment idea and the creative adaptation of both new and pre-modern ideas towards overcoming these limits, the Bengal Renaissance opened up ways towards alternative modernities, and Sri Aurobindo’s solutions in this context, may be seen as not merely critiques but fulfillments of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

[i] Sri Aurobindo, “Soul Force and the Fourfold Personality,” in The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1999), pgs. 740-751.


[ii] Sri Aurobindo, “The Religion of Humanity” in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1997), pgs. 564-570.

[iii] Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1972) pg.91.

[iv] Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988).

[v] Sri Aurobindo, “Sapta Chatusthaya” in The Record of Yoga I (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 2001), pg. 23.

[vi] Sri Aurobindo, Sanatan Dharma: Uttarpara Speech (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1983).

[vii] Sri Aurobindo, “The Triple Status of Supermind” in The Life Divine (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 2005), pgs.  152-160.

[viii] Sri Aurobindo, “Towards the Supramental Time Vision” in The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1999), pgs. 885-904.

[ix] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)  p.40.

[x] Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1997), pgs. 393-395.

[xi] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London and New York: Verso, 2006).

[xii] Sugata Bose, “Nation as Mother: Representations and Contestations of ‘India’ in Bengali Literature and Culture, in Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (ed.), Nationalism, Democracy and Development: State and Politics in India (New Delhi: OUP, 1999), p. 68.

[xiii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” from Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak (Oxford: OUP, 1988).

[xiv] Heidegger, Martin, ‘Age of the World Picture’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essay, trans and ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977) Pgs 115-154

[xv] Ibid., p.19

[xvi] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Philosophy of History, tr. by J. Sibree (London: Dover, 1956).

[xvii] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon, 1992).

[xviii] Sri Aurobindo, “True and False Subjectivism” of The Human Cycle in in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1997), pgs. 44-54.

[xix] Sri Aurobindo, Chapters IV and V of The Human Cycle in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1997), pgs. 35-54.

[xx] Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (New York: Random House, 1995).

[xxi] Sri Aurobindo, Chapters XXX – XXXV of The Ideal of Human Unity in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1997), pgs. 533-578.

[xxii] See, for example, Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny (Asia’s Transformation/Asia’s Great Cities) (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2006).

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One thought on “Sri Aurobindo and the Bengal Renaissance by Debashish Banerji

  1. R.C says:

    Your exploration of the Body Without Organs in the context of radical plurality and its convergence with Sri Aurobindo view of pluralism is nothing short of brilliant. Otherwise this is a highly recommended article for anyone trying to place Sri Aurobindo within the Bengali Renaissance, Indian Nationhood, Post-Enlightenment ideology. Bravo.

    Concurrent with reading this article I am reading Guru English (your book suggestion and also an essential read)

    In the book Srinivas Aravamudan refers to the genre of writing in the counter-discursive Orientalist turn in Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore as “Indian Romanticism”.

    While that term may not appeal to followers of Sri Aurobindo, he gives both of them fairly favorable treatment, even taking Ashis Nandy to task in his comparison of Sri Aurobindo and Kipling, for his understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s cultural universalism as although superior to Kipling disowning India, as somehow seeming “sick or bizarre”, because Nandy is also caught up “in the dubious project of justifying an alternative cultural universalism that updates Gandhi’s synthesis of Hindu Brahmanical tendencies with a Christian Ethics of martyrdom and self-sacrifice.”

    It is therefore welcome that you contextualize both the Bengali Renaissance and Sri Aurobindo work in terms of the dialog between universalism and plurality that is often misunderstood, even by scholars in the field.

    Aravandumdan entitles the section of the book on Sri Aurobindo: “Aurobindo’s Literary Cosmopolitanism”. Cosmopolitanism is a term he uses often in applying to figures in the Bengali Renaissance. (although he also well documents the reformist and revivalist tendencies) He also traces the influence of Bankim, Keshub Chandra Sen (with whom Sri Aurobindo’s father sailed to England) Rammohun other figures on him.

    This cosmopolitan and pluralist influence reflected in Sri Aurobindo’s life and work is conveniently overlooked by those trying to place him squarely in the camp of Hindu Nationalist. In this article you manage to skillfully spell out the context backgrounding Sri Aurobindo’s life and work and for this it should be required reading on the subject.

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