• 14 Jun, 2024

Sri Aurobindo and His Relevance

Sri Aurobindo and His Relevance

The Age of Sri Aurobindo is here...Excerpted from a talk on Sri Aurobindo and His Relevance in Present-Day India delivered by Dr. Pariksith Singh recently in Jaipur.

 

When I use the term ‘age’ I intend by it not only a lasting and deep impact made by one individual on the times and spirit of a certain field, but also a radical departure from the past, a decisive and seismic shift in the ways of the Universe and how we perceive it. I also mean by this a quantum leap in thought, an evolutionary or upward movement of consciousness, such that the world is no longer the same. And that the contribution is such that the individual becomes a universal figure, representative of the human aspiration and toil, the successes and challenges, and a path for collective humanity, leading on for centuries, even millennia to come. In the poetry of 20th century, we have seen phrases used such as ‘the age of Ezra Pound.’ Or the Newtonian-Cartesian age of western reductionistic science. Or the Renaissance being symbolized in the life of one man, Leonardo Da Vinci.

So, when I say that this is the age of Sri Aurobindo, I mean the depth, the scale, the heights, the duration of his larger-than-life existence becoming increasingly present to us in our daily life, his ideas, his vision, becoming real, so that we do not even notice them any more as his but ours. And this is not just pertaining to India but to the entire world.   

His concerns about the challenges India was going to face post- independence are still valid and perhaps even more acutely present and real. His vision of India and the world is yet an aspiration that we would do well to review, if not to learn from them, at least gain an insight into how the mind or non-mind of a Rishi works. And his solutions, his program for India’s true freedom, is a work in progress.

Many of his predictions about India and the world have come to pass and have become our reality. His immediate insight into the nature of the conflicts during his own lifetime is a study of the power of being able to see into the future. But also, many of the cornerstones of his darshana have become part of the solution that humanity may be able to deploy to face its own looming and gathering extinction.

It is critical to understand his thought, his philosophy, and his contribution, how he changed our world, and how he is still shaping our present and future. We are trying to understand him not as ‘bhaktas’ but with an open-ended and open-minded approach, with a high and subtle thinking. We will not be discussing the spiritual and mystical aspect of his vision which is another subject for another day perhaps.

Sri Aurobindo is the story of human potential and how it can transcend all limits; he is a call to our utmost possibility, an invitation to empowerment and growth. To assimilate the best of the past Indic and Western thought  while rejecting the outdated and fossilized aspects, and applying it with immediacy and urgency to the present, and building a future of humanity and an evolution of human consciousness.

I have attempted to organize here, in brief, the key motifs of his life. That which is clear and prominent to this date. The five key motifs of his life which were:

1) Swarajya, svatantrya, atma-nirbharta: First man to enunciate that India is a Divine Shakti, alive and teeming with 1.4 billion voices and individual souls, herself a soul of their unity.

It was his program that was accepted eventually by the INC in 1929 of purna svaraja and atmanirbharta, boycott of foreign goods and our own indigenous education.

2) Svadharma, svabhava, svaroop

3) Svadha, svatva and Spirituality

4) Integration, assimilation

5) Transformation

And above all, his deep and abiding love of India and mankind which was perhaps his greatest concern till his last moments. We see this in everything he did, felt, thought, saw, and willed. And for India and Indians too, it was always about a higher life, reaching the highest Truth individually, collectively, as a nation and as the leader of the world. It was not about political activism or social initiatives, though these are epiphenomena, spinoffs. His focus was on the individual growth and ascent, an evolution of consciousness and being, but the unique aspect of his focus on the individual was that it was at the same time universal, i.e., by growing oneself, staying connected to life, and continuing to do karma in the world, one impacted, and and at a deeper level transformed, life around oneself.

He was a Rishi, a being who had refined his consciousness to such an extent, who had ascended the scale or spectrum of consciousness with such self-mastery, that he was no longer an ordinary individual, but divinized, living in a state of unity with the world, not in the ego, but seeing the shared collective as one in his own being and seeing his own being in everyone. It may be called a state of Unity, or Divine Love, or compassion.

The Indian civilization, as Swami Vivekananda has pointed out, was created not by generals or kings but by the Rishis. And Swamiji enjoined upon us all to become Rishis, even greater than the ones in the past, such was his sense of honor for all of us. For it is the Rishi who can effect the true change in life, through the creative word, the inspired action, through the sense of Unity and harmony, and great wisdom and power of truth.

This, in essence, is Sri Aurobindo’s solution but he aimed even higher than the usual spiritual endeavor of Sannyasa, i.e., to become free or liberated, mukta. He wanted to transform life itself in the ancient Vedic tradition, a reliving of the Vala myth in which Indra, our Lu, with the help of Angirasa rishis and the divine intuition, liberates the hidden Sun in the depths of the nether world of gross matter, adri, and brings about a new dawn of humanity.

Svarajya

How many of us know that the concept of Purna Swaraj was first given birth by Sri Aurobindo and Bipin Chandra Pal? And that he was the first radical revolutionary of India? He had the courage to say in the Bande Mataram that the British would do well to leave India completely and that India should be completely independent. And he was the first one to create a whole program for India or Swadeshi to liberate herself from the clutches of the British, a program which was adopted fully by the Indian National Congress in 1929.

How many of us know that it was Sri Aurobindo with his deft maneuverings and brilliant strategy split the Indian National Congress decisively with the help of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1907 into the two camps of the moderates and the extremists, or what should be called today, the appeasers of the British Raj and the seekers of Independence, svatantrata.

It was not without reason that he was called the ‘most dangerous man in the British Empire’ by the British. Along with Bal-Lal-Pal, he had instilled in the natives of India a will to be completely free of the British and to stand on their own feet. The British realized he was the brains behind the operation.

But Sri Aurobindo’s vision did not end here. For he was not aiming for physical independence only. Belonging to the tradition of the ancient thought of India, he aspired for a complete independence, inner and outer, and self-rule and self-mastery of the nation, and this was his call for Swarajya. In the Indic paradigm, Swarajya is the key to Samrajya, the self-mastery within holds the key to the self-mastery without. And, after a brief four years’ stint in public life which transformed the Indian political scene drastically, he retired to Puducherry to give us a new program which exceeded his earlier program of India’s freedom from the British.

This new program was for India’s freedom from the British in terms of thought, in vision, in exploring and discovering its own genius, and in charting its own way to defining its own freedom to be. And we are seeing this struggle going on today, not only politically, but deeper down, in the colonization of India’s mind, her perspectives, her unquestioning obedience to Western paradigms and standards of statecraft and democracy, of culture and education, of religions and social-political life.

Will it be an India based on the ancient Vedic way or the secular western models? Or a new synthesis in light of her own ancient proclivity to integrate, to absorb within the best of the invaders and the attackers, something new that is in its own light, its dharma.

And this brings us to the second most important characteristic of his life, Swadharma. Today, we talk of atma-nirbharta but it was first proposed by him more than a hundred years ago.

Swadharma

Sri Aurobindo wanted a freedom that was not borrowed from the West. But a freedom that was in accordance with India’s own way of being, the central principle or core that held it together, what in the Indic parlance is called dharma, or that which holds one together and which we can lay hold of in order to found a greater and truer destiny.

To discover India’s swadharma, he did an extensive study of her ancient texts, her customs, rituals, manners, art, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, languages, philosophy, society, culture, education, and politics. And he brought back to India, its own shastra, what it had forgotten in the tamas of the British dominion. The grandeur of its own way of life that had sustained through at least 3-4 millennia if not more. And he began this by translating and interpreting the Veda, the Upanishads, the Gita, along with its dozen darshanas, its poetry in the various traditions of Bhakti and Jnana down the ages, and in presenting a new vision of our civilization to us, we who had forgotten who we were and were colonized not just physically but mentally, emotionally, vitally, and spiritually to ways of life not suited to our nature and genius. And he gave us a whole program of realizing our own dharma individually and as a nation, not only for India but for the entire world.

Spirituality

“Spirituality was the keynote of the Indian civilization,” he declared. And it is this spirituality he sought to discover, realize, and articulate for us so that we could live it in as harmonious and natural a manner as possible. And he returned to the spirituality of the Gita, not that which we mistakenly attribute to Sankara or those of its various panthas, as a practical way of bringing the higher light of our knowledge and truth not only in the inner life but also the outer, for the separation between the two is dualistic, reductionistic and arbitrary usually.

He brought back to us the grand achievement of the Veda, which we had consigned to Karmakanda, or as a compendium of rituals to please the gods, to gain from them the earthly gifts of cows, horses, celestial wine or Somarasa, sons, wealth, and victory over the enemy. He brought us back to the ancient understanding of Veda, which was profoundly symbolic, spiritual, esoteric, multidimensional, multi-layered in meanings and significance.

He showed the continuity between the Veda and the Upanishads and their continued presence in our modern life, though in forms distorted and misunderstood. And the experiential and adhyatmik nature of all its rituals, symbols, darshanas, worldview and self-view. And he showed us once again how this spirituality can be lived in the modern age, with its new challenges, new discoveries, and breakthroughs, practically through the brilliant commentary on the Gita.

Without discovering one’s svadharma, no great literature is possible. He did that for us. Without great literature, no civilization can be great. He was the key writer, poet, translator, critic, playwright, essayist, aphorist, who helped initiate the Literary Renaissance of India.

Integration

Sri Aurobindo was an integrator par excellence. He brought, like Sri Krishna in the Gita, the diverse and often divergent paths of Sankhya, Yoga, Jnana, Karma and Bhakti, Vedism and Vedanta, Tantra and Buddhism, and even the best of the ancient Greeks and modern achievements in thought, into one comprehensive, coherent, systematic methodical paradigm that was flexible enough to face the demands of the modern age.

The Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine, Essays on the Gita, The Mother, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Secret of the Veda, and Hymns to the Mystical Fire, are some of his important works that expound on this central unifying vision. Sri Aurobindo’s way was of an affirmation of human existence. He denied no aspect of human life but brought all of them together, giving each its just and appropriate role and place in our lives.

And his famous dictum, ‘All life is Yoga,” is pertinent even today, as the Indian mind is still partly not liberated from its obsessions with sannyasa and Mayavada, misunderstanding the concept of Maya and Mithya. This integration of all aspects of our nature is critical today for a complete development of the individual, whether it is through education or our adopted culture if we are to face the gathering dangers to the very existence of humanity, at least as it is today or as we conceive it to be.

Transformation

Each great sage or yogi has one central element in his life. For example, we can say that for Swami Vivekananda, it was the awakening of India to inner and outer strength, for Maharishi Raman, it was a single-minded and single-souled concentration on the Self or Atman to the exclusion of all else. For Sri Aurobindo, it was a deep and lifelong love for India. Not just India as it was but what it should be, and even more importantly, what it could be.

And the summit of this love for India manifested in a vast and wide-ranged vision of what it can become, united in strength, of one aspiration and one heart, together in mind and organization, yet giving the ultimate freedom and diversity in its unity. And to take whatever she had and purify it in the fire of sincerity, dhyana, askesis or Tapasya and transform it into something divine and eternal.

Man is a transitional animal, he said. And the only way to go beyond ourselves was to bring us to the truth and power of our own nature, in a spirit of utmost openness and liberation from the past, with forms new and radically different, and ‘to forge in the smithy of our soul the conscience of our race.’

His pride in India, the sense of Gaurava or honoring oneself, is the hallmark of his life. And he brings to us in his vision the best in India, not just an idea of India, as the phrase is bandied in a more modern discourse, but the very soul of India, that we can all aspire to discover, explore, and live and express in our twittering lives.

His Program for Transformation is his unique gift to mankind. For the first time, a great philosopher and darshanik not only gave us a prescription for a greater future, but he lived it to the fullest, describing each step of the challenge and the difficulty. These are the key elements of the program for self-transformation and collective transformation he gave us:

1) The Vast Vision, Vedic and Vedantic, synthetic and integral.

2) The Principles: He brought out the principles with which this transformation would be effected, viz., the Psychic, Spiritual, and Supramental.

3) The Processes: Yogic and intellectual development, the synthesis of Yogic and spiritual systems including Vedanta, Tantra, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, and even physical development were all incorporated by him into a single project

4) Goal: Individual and Collective, personal and universal evolution, not like in the past limited to the individual only as we see with most spiritual disciplines, was his domain always.

5) Personal and Unique example of living his own prescription and path: His ‘Utopia’ compared to that of others such as Plato, the Philosopher-King and the Spiritual-Sage, is one that is lived, practiced, delineated and only then prescribed. Sri Aurobindo himself becomes the change he leads us towards.

6) Transformation of the journey upward, the ritasya panthah, by living it himself in granular detail, not just the large principles but also the microscopic minutiae.

Sri Aurobindo gave us a synthesis of all the various processes and darshanas developed in India’s hoary past giving each its proper place, with enough flexibility and allowance for individual development and growth and fulfillment of one’s fullest highest potential. We take it now for granted. But the impact of his purna yoga is seen in subsequent panthas and denominations. If we pay attention, the attempt to see his work as a validation or part of the lineage of various streams of Indian darshanas is another such accomplishment. For example, Swami Medhananda sees him in the lineage of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Others may see him in the lineage of Vedic Rishis, the Upanishads and the Gita.

A vast integration has happened, and no matter how much Sanatana Dharma is attacked, for those who understand, the inviolability of the dharma has been articulated clearly, cogently and comprehensively by Sri Aurobondo for our age. A wide supple vision has been given us, not rejecting the past but taking its core and secrets, not rejecting the modern but accepting its own truth, and looking forward to the future armed with all the best of human legacy and heritage.

 

[This article is based on a talk delivered by the author at the Rajasthan International Centre, Jaipur, on September 10, 2023. The original talk has been edited and condensed for print. — ED.]

Pariksith Singh MD

Author, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner based in Florida, USA. Pariksith Singh has been deeply engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga for almost all his adult life, and is the author of 'Sri Aurobindo and the Literary Renaissance of India', 'Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy', and 'The Veda Made Simple'.