Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
Part 3 (Conclusion)
Spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind. But it is a mistake to think spirituality is only about the supra-sensible, and ranges of mind beyond our present mind, about the Infinite and the splendours of the Spirit. Spirituality must flourish on earth and touch every aspect of human life and transform it with its unimaginably prolific creativeness. India’s creativity in the past has been as splendid as it has been multifarious, touching all fields of life. It is to this multifarious labour that India must now return with spirituality as the governing principle.
Sri Aurobindo was no blind admirer of everything in the past of India. He has diagnosed the causes of the decline of the Indian civilisation and we should ensure that we do not repeat the old mistakes in harking back to our tradition. He has pointed out that India’s decline was prepared by three movements of retrogression:
(a) Firstly, there is, comparatively, a sinking of that super-abundant vital energy and a fading of the joy of life and the joy of creation.
(b) Secondly, there is a rapid cessation of the old free intellectual activity, a slumber of the scientific and critical mind as well as the creative intuition; what remains becomes more and more a repetition of ill- understood fragments of past knowledge.
(c) Finally, spirituality remains but burns no longer with the large and clear flame of knowledge of former times, but in intense jets and in a dispersed action which replaces the old magnificent synthesis and in which certain spiritual truths were emphasised to the neglect of others.
One of our cardinal weaknesses as a civilisation has been our inability to defend ourselves against those who had evil designs on us. As Will Durant has pointed out we failed to organise ourselves for the protection of our frontiers, our capitals, our wealth and freedom from the hordes Scythians, Huns, Afghans and Turks. Civilisation is a precious thing whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may be overthrown by barbarians invading from without and multiplying from within. The bitter lesson we have to learn from our history is that eternal vigilance is the price of civilisation. A nation must love peace, but keep its powder dry.
Hopefully as we progress in this century, a better world order may emerge. The United Nations may be able to guarantee freedom from aggression to all nations in the world. But that day is still far away. Sri Aurobindo repeatedly called on his countrymen to develop the Kshatriya spirit, almost lost during our centuries of subjection. “The Kshatriya of old must again take his rightful position in our social polity to discharge the first and foremost duty of defending its interests. The brain is impotent without the right arm of strength.” He also said in another context: “What India needs especially at this moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit we have already too much.”
Secondly, the scientific and critical mind of India must be reawakened from its slumber. Uncritical adulation of the past and the tendency of producing commentaries on commentaries on commentaries of great books of the past is not a very healthy intellectual activity. Thus we need more science, more critical inquiry.
We don’t have time to talk in detail about another crying shame that has afflicted our nation and keeps it under bondage to the West, and that is our education. For one thing the present educational system aims at making the child an information-recording and storing machine and a robot for making money. The second grave defect of our education system is that it is gravely denationalising. No German education would be regarded complete without a good acquaintance of Goethe, but Indian education has no such concern about the sources of our culture. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous art critic, noted this about Indian education nearly a hundred year ago:
It is hard to realise how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being—a sort of intellectual paraiah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems the educational is the most difficult and most tragic.
It is ironical that Indian education should uncritically try to emulate the West when the West itself is going through a crisis of faith with regard to its institutions of education and culture. It is desperately wondering what is going wrong as it is facing mounting problems of drug addiction among the youth, teenage pregnancies among high school students, existential hopelessness among people in their middle age and of a social organisation that sets a premium on greed rather on compassion and love.
If India is facing a crisis today on all these fronts it is not because of but in spite of our spiritual heritage. If in part we owe this crisis to our unfortunate history of the past few hundred years, in part at least it is of our own making. Sri Aurobindo pointed out nearly a hundred years ago that few societies have been so tamasic, as full of inertia as Indian society in later times. Few have been so eager to preserve themselves in inertia. Few therefore have attached so much importance to authority. Every detail of our life has been fixed for us by Shastra and custom, every detail of our thought by Scripture and its commentators—but oftener by commentators than by Scripture. The only exception to this has been the field of individual spiritual experience. This bondage to tradition has led to an increasing impoverishment of the Indian intellect, one of the most gigantic and original in the world. We continue to feel helpless in the face of the new conditions and new knowledge imposed on us by the recent European contact.
We have tried to assimilate, we have tried to reject, we have tried to select; but we have not been able to do any of these things successfully. Successful assimilation depends on mastery; but we have not mastered European conditions and knowledge, rather we have been seized, subjected and enslaved by them. Successful rejection is possible only if we have intelligent possession of that which we wish to keep. Our rejection too must be an intelligent rejection; we must reject because we have understood, not because we have failed to understand.
Sri Aurobindo goes on to point out that this is true even of the way we have possessed our Hinduism, our old culture. We do things sanctioned by the Hindu tradition without knowing why we do them, and believe things without knowing why we believe them. We assert things not because we understand them but because some book or some Brahmin enjoins it or because it is according to somebody’s interpretation of what he asserts as a fundamental Scripture of our religion. Even here, nothing is our own, native to our intelligence, all is derived. About Europeans we have understood what they want us to think about themselves and their modern civilisation. Our English education has increased tenfold the evil of our dependence instead of remedying it.
How shall we recover our lost intellectual freedom and elasticity? By liberating our minds in all subjects from the servitude to authority, whether of Sayana or of Max Mueller, of Shankara or of Hegel, of the written Shastra or the unwritten law of European social opinion, of Brahmin Pandita or of European scientists, thinkers and scholars. Let us break all our chains, venerable as they are, but let that be in order to be free. “It would be a poor bargain to exchange our old Indian illuminations, however dark they may have grown to us, for a derivative European enlightenment or replace the superstitions of popular Hinduism by the superstitions of materialistic Science.”
“Our first necessity, if India is to survive and do her appointed work in the world, is that the youth of India should learn to think – to think on all subjects, to think independently, fruitfully, going to the heart of things, not stopped by their surface….” We must entirely shake off the twin obstacles to self-fulfilment, blind mediaeval prejudice and arrogant modern dogmatism. “The old fixed foundations have been broken up, we are tossing in the waters of a great upheaval and change. It is no use clinging to the old ice-floes of the past, they will soon melt and leave their refugees struggling in perilous waters. It is no use landing ourselves in the infirm bog, neither sea nor good dry land, of a second- hand Europeanism…. No, we must learn to swim and use that power to reach the good vessel of unchanging truth; we must land again on the eternal rock of ages.”
Finally, “We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions. We need not fear that we shall by that process cease to be Indians or fall into the danger of abandoning Hinduism. India can never cease to be India or Hinduism to be Hinduism, it we really think for ourselves. It is only if we allow Europe* to think for us that India is in danger of becoming an ill-executed and foolish copy of Europe*. We must not begin by becoming partisans, our first business as original thinkers will be to accept nothing, to question everything.”
The task before us looks formidable but it is really not beyond us. We have a most inspiring legacy in the matter of original thinking. Subhash Kak has reminded us that the ancient Indian mind anticipated several of the most fundamental concepts which govern the world view of modern science today at least a couple of millennia before Western science could come up with them. This is Kak’s list:
1. According to the Puranas the cycle to which the present creation belongs is about 8.64 billion years old. This is about right based on current astrophysical estimates. This sounds revolutionary when we note that until a couple of hundred years ago the dogma in most of Eurasia was that the world was created in 4004 BC.
2. The atomic doctrine of Kanada (2nd century AD) is much more interesting than that of Democritus. Kanada also postulates like Sankhya and Vedanta the subject/object dichotomy that has played such a crucial role in the creation of modern science.
3. That Space and Time need not flow at the same rate for different observers is a pretty revolutionary notion which we encounter in the Puranic stories and in the Yoga Vasishtha. We are not speaking here of the mathematical theory of relativity which is of recent European origin, yet the notion that time acts differently for different observers is quite remarkable.
4. The Puranas say that Man arose at the end of a chain which began with plants and various kinds of animals. The theory of Vedic evolution is not at variance with Darwinian evolution although its focus was consciousness and not mere physical forms.
5. The science of Mind described in the Vedic books and systematised by Patanjali is a very sophisticated description of the nature of the human mind and its capacity. The Western world did not even take up this field for study until very recently.
6. A binary number system was used by Pingala (according to traditional accounts Panini’s brother who lived around 450 BC) which must have helped the invention of the zero sign between 50 BC and 50 AD. Without the binary system the development of modern computers would have been much harder, and without a sign for zero, mathematics would have languished. In the West, the binary number system was independently discovered by Leibnitz only in 1678, 2000 years after Pingala.
7. Finally, Panini’s Grammar of Sanskrit Ashtadhyayi describes the Sanskrit language in 4000 algebraic rules. This has been hailed by the American scholar Leonard Bloomfield as “one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence”. No grammar of similar power has yet been constructed for any other language since.
Isn’t our educational system itself a marvel of our mental slavery since we aren’t being told about any of these seven wonders of the ancient Indian mind in our school books? My purpose in listing them here is not to make us all just feel smugly proud of our heritage but to convince the modern generation of Indians what wonders can be achieved if only we break all intellectual bonds and learn to think for ourselves.
* We may conveniently replace Europe with West in today’s context.
Mangesh V. Nadkarni (1933–2007) was a professor of English literature, and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo.
Nadkarni completed his M.A. in English literature from Rajaram College, Kolhapur, and began his teaching career in Rajkot. Later, he moved to Anand where he was a lecturer of English at Nalini Arvind & T.V. Patel Arts College. During his college career, Nadkarni was a student of professor V.K. Gokak who influenced Nadkarni towards Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. Mangesh earned his Ph.D. in Phonetics from the UCLA, and was a professor of linguistics at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad. He later taught as a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore (1985–93). During the course of his tenure, he guided Ph.D. candidates and published in theoretical and applied Linguistics journals.
Nadkarni’s interest in Sri Aurobindo and his writings were awakened when as a young man he came across the following utterance of Sri Aurobindo in a journal, “Heaven we have possessed, but not the earth; but the fullness of the Yoga is to make, in the formula of the veda, ‘Heaven and Earth equal and one'”
The influence of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy on him was gradual and he found it intellectually most liberating and satisfying. He was a Yogi on the path of continuous progress, and a renowned exponent of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He lectured many times on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and vision. Dr. Nadkarni spoke brilliantly on ‘Savitri’, a 24,000-verse epic poem by Sri Aurobindo. The poem recounts the saga of human victory over ignorance and the conquest of death. Reading ‘Savitri’ is itself considered a practice of integral yoga and a potent vehicle of aspiration. Nadkarni inculcated ‘Savitri’ as a mantra in his life.