August 28, 2006

Any other way will be impossible

Nationalism, Religion, and Beyond: Writings on Politics, Society, and Culture — Edited by Peter Heehs Permanent Black, Delhi SABDA – Distributors of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publications
The book is arranged in six thematic parts which are roughly chronological: (1) Cultural Nationalism, (2) Political Nationalism, (3) Religion, (4) Religion and Nationalism, (5) Beyond Nationalism, and (6) Beyond Religion...
For the rest of the anthology he then steps back and lets Sri Aurobindo "speak for himself". To illustrate the general drift of the anthology and its relevance even for the ultra-modern, non-religious mentality of today, we quote two substantial extracts from the first part, "Cultural Nationalism"...
Almost a century has passed since, and is it less true of Europe today than of Europe then? Two years later, when Sri Aurobindo turned towards India in the same context, his eye was equally sharp and language equally acute...
It is not easy to grasp the full depth and wideness of Sri Aurobindo's thought—not only for the public at large, but even for his admirers and followers. Dazzled by the light and vividness of his main propositions, we often fail to perceive the subtler shades of meaning in his complex arguments. Thus the piece about Europe might seem, at first glance, to justify and indirectly advocate a wholesale rejection of everything coming from the West as incurably infected with a mortal disease. Yet in the second piece written two years later he recommends the typically "European" process of free and original thinking as part of the remedy for India. What he really fights and detests is the cheap superficial imitation and uncritical acceptance of the results of European thought, since that would be the very antipode of original thinking.
But if neither Europe nor traditional India can satisfy him, what else remains, what else can be attempted? Where is he trying to point by alluding to India's "invincible spiritual individuality which can yet arise and break her own and the world's fetters"? Some – taking their cue from the many places in Sri Aurobindo's writings where he expresses his genuine admiration for the rich and flexible culture of ancient India as opposed to the increasingly narrow and rigid developments of later Brahmanism and Hinduism – would say that he is pointing to the rejuvenated "older & mightier Vedanta" which does not reject the world. After all, it was the Isha Upanishad that gave Sri Aurobindo the first glimpse of spiritual awakening, and provided him with the basis for his own system of world- and life-affirming spirituality.
It can hardly be a coincidence that his magnum opus of spiritual practice is called The Synthesis of Yoga, or the institution he founded an ashram. External forms of devotion witnessed in the Ashram also trace their roots mostly to Indian tradition. No wonder many people find such an interpretation convincing. In this view, India needs to reconstruct the simpler, adaptable Vedantism of the Upanishadic times with its plastic social framework, and so reunited, vigorously "push out" of its social body first the decadent European materialism, promptly followed by whichever other systems of faith happen to be lumped with it as unwelcome intruders on the sacred Indian soil.
Yet the fact remains that Sri Aurobindo has explicitly spoken and written to the contrary—not once, but many times. The social and cultural forms of the Upanishadic Vedantism simply cannot be revived. Readers of the anthology will find the reasons explained by Sri Aurobindo himself, and we assure them that those pieces are as powerful and penetrating as the ones we have already quoted. Here is what Sri Aurobindo thinks of the approaches that we have previously referred to as "pushing out"...
Nothing and nobody then needs to be "pushed out" in order that India may realise her fullness of being. Rather the opposite—at least in Sri Aurobindo's view. He indeed speaks of Hinduism as superior to other religions but applies this attribute to a "wider Hinduism" of which the Bible and the Koran are valid scriptures and of which, therefore, Christians and Muslims are already legitimate members. Moreover, he praises this "wider Hinduism" for a virtue precisely opposite to that of "pushing out": the inexhaustible capacity to absorb, to reject nothing but to test and experience everything, and to turn it to the soul's uses. To sum up, in Sri Aurobindo's words of September 1906,
"Devotion to one's own ideals and institutions, with toleration and respect for the ideals and institutions of other sections of the community, and an ardent love and affection for the common civic life and ideal of all—these are what must be cultivated by us now, for the building up of the real Indian nation. To try to build it up in any other way will be impossible." — Marcel Kvassay
Marcel qualified as an electrical engineer and a teacher from Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, Slovakia. He spent several years working for Oxford University Press in the area of English Language Teaching. In August 2002 he came to Pondicherry and since then has worked at SABDA. This review is written in his personal capacity.

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