On Intellectuals and Thinkers and Other Musings on India in the Light of Sri Aurobindo

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FROM THE INTRODUCTION CHAPTER

 

Chaturvedi Badrinath once wrote: “reformers have so far tried to change India; the point, however, is first to understand India.” (1993, p. 29) This book is the outcome of some of my attempts to understand India.

This attempt is led by my interest in making sense of the individual and collective Indian socio-cultural experience using an Indian framework, not one that harks back to some golden age of the past, but one that is evolutionary, futuristic and yet firmly rooted in the eternal truths of Indian civilisation and culture. Such a framework I find in Sri Aurobindo’s sociological and cultural writings. He helps me see beyond and behind the surface phenomena and uncover some of the deeper truths being reflected through them. He helps me develop that most essential and difficult intellectual quality of patience and withholding judgment when interpreting any outer sociological trend or occurrence.

Today, in mainstream Indian social-cultural-political discourse, for the most part, there is a general tendency to ignore deeper, intellectual thought. The sensationalist mass media has contributed to a great dumbing down of even our educated masses. In this climate where any and all intellectuality has been mostly confined to a few ivory towers of academy, it is difficult to get even the educated and socio-economically privileged section of the society interested in exploring any deeper intellectual thought. It seems as if the trinity of pop-sociology, pop-psychology and pop-culture has taken over the general mentality of the society leaving little room for any serious, intellectually rigorous discourse on social-cultural phenomena. Any serious attempt to think through and understand the observed phenomena, if it happens at all, is almost always done using the intellectual theories and frameworks developed in the Western academic circles. But this habit of non-thinking or thinking only in terms of borrowed categories must change if we want India to awaken to her innate intellectual potential.

My inner journey leads me to the teachings of Integral Yoga by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (his spiritual collaborator). Over the years I have also become keenly aware of the influences of my academic training, in the disciplines of Economics and Education as well as my social science research background, on my intellectual journey to understand more deeply the social, cultural and political realities of India. In my attempts to integrate these inner and outer journeys, I don’t see any conflict between my invocations of the materialist and the spiritual India, between the outer and inner truths of India. Nor has this conflict existed ever in the idea of India itself.

For the purpose of this volume, my interest is limited to the educational, social and cultural thought of Sri Aurobindo, especially pertaining to a few topics of interest being explored here such as education, contemporary society and culture, literature, identity, nationalism, women in society, religious diversity, place of religion in individual and collective life, and the growing consumerist mind-set. The essays included here were written with a simple aim – how can Sri Aurobindo’s insights help me understand some of these outer sociological-cultural phenomena in a deeper way?

Cover-On Intellectuals and Thinkers

 

The Brain-Power

Several years ago, late Dr. Kireet Joshi, in an interview with Auroville Today, was asked a very relevant question: “How successful have you been in communicating Sri Aurobindo’s ideas in India?” His answer is just as relevant today as it was in 2002. He said:

“It’s been a painful experience for me. Sri Aurobindo wrote a very small article entitled, The Brain of India. In it he said that what India needs most urgently is brain, brain-power. Unfortunately for the last 100 years if there is one thing which has not been developed to the required degree in this country, it is brain-power. The robust intellectuality which was a very important characteristic of India has not been allowed to manifest because the scheme of education introduced by Macaulay in the last century has denationalized the nation…Our lack of intellectuality can also be ascribed to the influence of some of the leaders of India who chose to influence and awake the masses through mass media and mass language, and to a mindset which questions the usefulness of any study which does not contribute directly to economic development. The result? If you speak to Indians today on any difficult subject at a deeper level, most of the audience will begin to yawn. If you talk superficially, you’ll be applauded. This is why the influence of Sri Aurobindo has not permeated more, because to read Sri Aurobindo requires tremendous brain power.”

Dr. Ananda Reddy, a renowned scholar of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and founder-director of Pondicherry-based Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research throws a different light to this very question. In a personal interview, he stated that one of the reasons why Sri Aurobindo’s thought has not permeated more in the overall social-cultural discourse of the nation can be seen as “partly the mistake of ‘Aurobindonian speakers’ who prefer to remain in ‘cloud 9’ and do not try to make Sri Aurobindo relevant to the recent social and national issues. We have not grasped the ‘pulse’ of the people and hence remain distanced.” He further explained this in a more philosophical way:

“It is still the age of ‘devolution,’ and just as the Vedas were brought ‘down’ – so to speak – to the reach of common man through Upanishads, Puranas, Itihasas, Bhakti movement and many other such spiritual-religio-cultural movements over a period of many centuries, so too Sri Aurobindo’s vision ought to penetrate the present mind and life of man. The scholars of Sri Aurobindo’s thought, those who propound his vision, are too ‘futuristic’ in their stance, and are mostly unable to relate to the young aspirants in the society.”

This view makes a lot of sense. The community of scholars engaged in studying and disseminating the thought and vision of Sri Aurobindo must find a way to engage more directly and more explicitly with the questions and concerns of those educated sections of the society who have not been yet exposed to the idea of looking at life and its many aspects in the light of a deeper spiritual philosophy. Many of them may not be philosophically inclined, but most of them may still be deeply interested in understanding the deeper significance of certain common sociological and cultural phenomena that are part of their everyday life experience. Living life with a greater awareness makes life more meaningful and rewarding in many tangible and intangible ways. This alone makes it a worthwhile effort to ponder deeply on how to make sense of our lived experiences in the light of a deeper outlook on life, universe and existence.

Several institutions inspired by the work and vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are already making efforts in this direction, via workshops, study camps, and other formal and informal means. Some scholars are also analysing contemporary social, economic and political issues using insights from Sri Aurobindo’s writings to throw light on possible ways to address the problems. But a lot more work is necessary for a wide-ranging and far-reaching intellectual and creative renaissance of India; and every drop counts toward this effort.

The present volume is one such drop. It is a humble attempt to explore selected social-cultural phenomena and topics in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s deep sociological-cultural thought. The essays included in this volume were written over the last several years. Their earlier versions – and in most cases abridged versions – were first published in various print and online magazines and journals. A few of these essays were also included in an earlier self-published collection, an e-book under the title “The Thinking Indian” (Matriwords, 2015). All of the essays have been thoroughly revised and expanded for the purpose of this volume. This has also helped me renew and further clarify my understanding of these topics.

Outline

The essays included here cover a variety of topics. In one essay I explore the fundamental question of how we may understand who qualifies to be called as an intellectual, as a true thinker, while in another I ask what it means to engage in a sincere and unbiased discussion to explore multiple perspectives concerning any issue at hand. Nation and nationalism – the two highly discussed terms in recent times – in the light of deeper Indian spirit form the subject of one exploratory essay, while another looks at the role and limits of reason in the context of religion and social reform. One piece presents a contemplation on Dharma, which Sri Aurobindo once remarked is the second master-note of Indian Culture, next to the Spirit. The complex topic of inter-religious harmony in India, particularly between Hinduism and Islam, is also explored in one of the essays. Another examines the phenomenon of commercialism in modern-day urban India, in the light of ancient Indian wisdom as well as Sri Aurobindo’s insights on the topic.

Two essays explore the deeper significance of Ramayana – the story of Rama – in the Indian collective psyche; one does this by critically examining the academic discourse surrounding the hugely popular Indian TV show on Ramayana, while the other analyses a modern retelling in Hindi of Ramayana in the light of literature’s potential role in inspiring today’s youth. This volume also includes a brief reflection on what is believed to be the first English novel in India, Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. The two longer pieces focus on two key topics concerning Indian society. One of these explores some of the ways in which Indian education can be re-envisioned in the light of Indian spirit. And the other looks at the topic of women’s realities, especially around the themes of equality and freedom with regard to education and marriage. Like all the other subjects explored in this volume, this issue is also examined in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s integral vision of life, human development and individual and societal evolution of consciousness.

The last essay explores what Sri Aurobindo called as the “spiritual practicality” as the need of the moment. The piece titled “Are We Listening to Our Mother?” is a less of an essay and more of a call to fellow Indians to start thinking, while the closing piece reminds that a long, thorough work is necessary if we aspire to grow into clear and genuinely free and independent thinkers, ready to understand our collective social and cultural life in the light of the Indian truths and perspectives.

All these essays, though widely diverse in the themes they explore, issues they investigate, and topics they examine, have one thing in common. And that is what brings them together and gives them a sense of unity. That common thing is my interest in exploring how the high-as-Himalayas, deep-as-ocean and wide-as-sky vision-thought of Sri Aurobindo can be a source of light and insight as I make sense of some contemporary sociological and cultural observations that catch my interest in this ongoing personal and intellectual journey.

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