Two years ago while trying to map and understand three significant aspects of Aurobindo – the biographical, the literary and the spiritual, I had been intrigued by his transformation from a radical political revolutionary to a seeker of spiritual harmony. His life, I had come to understand, was a metaphor for the mediation of matter and spirit that through the dynamics of negotiation had unfolded the privileging of the latter in the quest of truth.
As a revolutionary, Aurobindo had passionately declared swaraj not as supervised self-rule under the Empire but unqualified independence from the colonizers. He was incarcerated in the first revolutionary case in India and kept in solitary confinement in Alipur Jail. It was here that he had the epiphany of the Divine as Krishna and he absorbed the luminosity of cosmic consciousness. It is the experience of this spiritual manifestation and subsequent transformation that he narrates in what is now well known as the Uttarpara Speech.
By the time that he had been released from imprisonment, he seemed to observe that the earlier nationalist fervour which was alive with the ‘cry of Bande Mataram, alive with the hope of a nation, the hopes of millions of men who had newly risen out of degradation’ had been subdued into inexplicable inertia. Aurobindo expresses the bewilderment of the masses, with antithetical imagery of heaven with a vision of the future on the one hand and a ‘leaden sky from which human thunders and lightning rained’ on the other. The materiality of revolutionary energy seemed indistinct and blurred.
The young anglophile, agnostic whose middle name was Ackroyd was attracted to the concept of atman during an early engagement with advaita philosophy while in Cambridge. Hence it was no real surprise that a nascent awareness of philosophy and spirituality rooted in the Indian tradition became an advantaged consciousness in time to come.
The post-imprisonment message of Bepin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo admits to being inspiring: ‘he spoke of his realization in jail of God within us all, of the Lord within the nation’. This stimulus possibly marked the beginning to two distinct forms of awareness. At the personal level he looked for the God within us all in a manner resonant of the later Gandhi. In terms of social and public posture, nationalism for Aurobindo was not to be a political programme but ‘a religion that has come from God’. The first enabled him to understand the fatuity of pride and vanity. He was aware of his own weakness and that he was ‘a faulty and imperfect instrument’. When he compared his own abilities with the potential of those inmates with whom he shared the space of penal confinement, he discovered that most of them were superior ‘in force and character’. In each of those ‘darkened souls’ of thieves and dacoits he visualized Krishna and in turn he was put to shame by ‘their sympathy, their kindness, the humanity triumphant over such adverse circumstances’.
This awareness came to him through his engagement with the Gita. It empowered him, gave him resilience and strength. The Bhagwad Gita, which forms a small but significant section of The Mahabharata problematises oppositional moral positions. Lord Krishna, a divine manifestation in the human form of Arjuna’s charioteer emphasizes duty while Arjuna questions whether duty is to be prioritised over the evaluation of consequences. While the very distinguished Amartya Sen observes the post-carnage desolation as ‘something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts’ (The Argumentative Indian, p 5), Aurobindo endorsed Krishna’s moral position in an act of unqualified surrender:
“ I was not only to understand intellectually but to realize what
Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those
who aspire to do his work, to be free from repulsion and desire
to do work for Him without the demand for fruit, to renounce
self-will and become a passive and faithful instrument in His
hands, to have an equal heart for high and low, friend and
opponent, success and failure”. (Uttarpara Speech)
This was his tryst with Sanatan Dharma, not as a religion of faith and profession but as ‘life itself’. To Aurobindo, his dharma would provide salvation to humanity. Historicising the Indian context, he believed that India had ‘always existed for humanity’ and not for herself and when strong did not ‘trample upon the weak’.
Aurobindo’s complete surrender enabled him to experience the omniscience of Vasudeva and he felt the enveloping security of Krishna, the ‘arms of my Friend and Lover’. The expression of this experience connects Aurobindo laterally with Bhakti, Sufi and Baul traditions. With every passing moment during his incarceration, he experienced the fruits of his surrender and the security of divine protection. The narrative traces the evolution of this religious experience from the Lal Bazar hajat to that famous defense by Chittaranjan Das.
During the seclusion of solitary confinement, an inner voice enjoined him to fulfill two tasks. The first was to uplift the nation differentiating his vocation from those of the others. He was not to suffer for the country but to do ‘His work’. The second was to speak for Sanatan Dharma and to ‘extend it over the world’. This was an eternal religion preserved in an ancient and sacred land, one that was neither narrow nor sectarian but one that could ‘triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy’. The realization of truth through this religion is, he said, the Lila of Vasudeva integrating life and religion. It is from this premise that Aurobindo redefines nationalism ‘not as politics but a religion, a creed, a faith’. Tagore too was opposed to communal sectarianism but he kept nation and spirituality separate. Writing to Abala Bose, the wife of the reputed Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose in 1908 he succinctly stated ‘patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds. I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity so long as I live’. His novel Ghare Baire expounds this theme while the unfolding of history both in Europe and in the subcontinent vindicated his belief.
Given these premises, it may be easy and convenient for many to co-opt Aurobindo within the ideology of conservative Hinduism. To my mind, that limits the reading of Aurobindo. What is clear is that as a result of the epiphany during his penal confinement, he chose to privilege the internal-spiritual over the public-political. The solidarity that he asserts is not material but spiritual to which he assigns a name but without any iconography. This may be suggestive of loose homogenization but nothing overtly so. However there is another aspect that deserves critical attention. Colonial control dominated material space and resistance within that space had largely remained an unfulfilled dream, reduced to inertia as Aurobindo records at the end of his imprisonment. In a manner to be associated with Gandhi, indigenous self-esteem could be asserted by the spiritual. The anti-colonial strategy could, in Aurobindo’s mind, be effective if the spiritual deconstructed the material and retrieved self-respect, dignity and confidence from the margins. The Uttarpara Speech is a statement of that dream and a narrative of its evolution.