Situating Sri Aurobindo (A Reader)

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Item Code: NAJ564
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Peter Heehs
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780198092124
Pages: 340
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

Known to some as a revolutionary and political leader and to others as a yogi and spiritual guru, Sri Aurobindo was also an outstanding poet, literary critic, political and social theorist, and philosopher. In an attempt to understand this multifaceted genius in the totality of his contributions, this volume brings together essays by eminent scholars from diverse disciplines that critically assess his writings and their enduring relevance. Discussed Prominently are the lasting importance of Aurobindo’ poetry and prose works and the continued applicability of his ideas on Indian culture and polity. Also evaluated in detail are the relations between Aurobindo’s thought and that of Indian and Western philosophers such as Shankaracharya and G.W.F. Hegel, as well as the depth of his spiritual ideas.

Peter Heehs places these essays in context through his stimulating introduction, arguing that Aurobindo is not just a relic importance and much contemporary relevance.



Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), known to some primarily as a revolutionary and political leader, to others mainly as a yogi and spiritual guru, was also an outstanding poet, literary critic, political and social theorist, philosopher, and spiritual thinker. The essays in this volume, written by specialists in literary criticism, political and social theory, philosophy, and religious studies, situate and evaluate his contributions to these fields.

Readers of Aurobindos works, as K.D. Verma notes in his essay, 'fall into two broad groups: those who are followers of Aurobindo and those who are fascinated by his extraordinary genius and achievements. Aurobindos many followers have created an extensive literature consisting of compilations, essays, and devotional expressions that appear regularly in books and periodicals published by Aurobindo-related organizations. Scholars interested in what Verma refers to succinctly as Aurobindos 'genius and achievements' have published pieces on him in a variety of peer-reviewed journals and edited books. From the dozens of essays brought out in such publications since the late 1950s, I have selected fifteen, presenting them in four sections: Poetry and Criticism, Political and Social Thought, Philosophical Thought, and Spiritual Thought. Most of the essays chosen were published between 2006 and 2011, showing that interest in all aspects of Aurobindos thought remains strong even at the start of the twenty-first century.

Writing as scholars and not as followers (whatever their personal feelings about Aurobindo might be), the authors of the essays place him within the framework of their disciplines, and use the procedures of these disciplines to throw light upon his work. The procedures used include biographical and historical contextualization; cultural, social, and political analysis; and critical evaluation. I will examine each of these in turn.

Situating Aurobindo Biographically and Historically
Aurobindo played down the importance of biography in general and of biographies of himself in particular, writing in a letter of 1936: 'What matters in a spiritual man's life is not what he did or what he was outside to the view of the men of his time (that is what historicity or biography comes to, does it not?) but what he was and did within.' The inner life of a spiritual figure is, he said, 'so crowded and teeming with significant things that no biographer or historian could ever hope to seize it all or tell it'.' This and similar statements are frequently cited by Aurobindo's followers as proof that he was opposed in principle to biographical writing, but his point was simply that attempts by biographers to write the story of a spiritual person's inner life were doomed to failure.' He in fact worked closely with two of his biographers, providing them with original material that has since been published in his Autobiographical Notes. During the early part of his life he read many biographies of literary and political figures, and he often referred to incidents in their lives while discussing their work:

Aurobindo's own life was so unusual and so 'teeming with Significant things' that it is hard to discuss his work without reference to biographical events, and all the authors of the essays in this volume do so to a greater or lesser extent. They make it clear that Aurobindos experiences during each period of his life contributed to his psychological and cultural make-up and had an impact on his actions and writings. During his early years in India, Aurobindo was cut off from his native culture, learning to speak English but not Bengali. The years he spent in England left a lasting intellectual imprint, and also provided him with a vantage point for his study of British colonialism. Back in India, he made a conscious effort to recover his cultural heritage, and also reflected on what had to be done to alter the balance of power in the country. Four years of active involvement in politics were followed by forty years of spiritual retirement, during which his political and cultural focus changed from anti-colonial nationalism to cosmopolitan internationalism.

There is no need to provide a summary account of Aurobindos life in this introduction, since many good biographies are available, and several of the authors, notably K.D. Verma, Edward T. Ulrich, Andrew Sartori, B.S. Chimni, Michael Stoeber, C. Mackenzie Brown, and Robert A. McDermott, deal with aspects of his life in considerable depth. They and the other writers examine the biographical evidence from the stand- point of their disciplines. Verma and Ulrich look at the inter-relationship between Aurobindos life experiences, his political and spiritual beliefs, and his literary output. Kathleen Raine and Richard Hartz scrutinize his Indian spiritual identity in the light of the European intellectual tradition that helped to form him. Sartori, Chimni, Sugata Bose, and Haridas Chaudhuri reflect on his position as a British-educated opponent of British colonialism, noting how his early anti-British national- ism developed into transnational cosmopolitanism. Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield show that his philosophical stance was partly a response to the colonial situation, partly a reply to Indian interlocutors of the past. J.N. Mohanty, Steve Odin, and Stephen Phillips, though hardly referring to his life as such, make it clear that his social, metaphysical, and ethical philosophies were situated in an intellectual framework specific to him. Brown places him within the history of ideas of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century India; Stoeber discusses his personal and political life while examining his use of Tantric material; and McDermott returns to the question that Aurobindo himself posed: what is the relationship between a spiritual person's life and his inner experiences?

Aurobindo's personal life intersected dramatically with the history of early-twentieth-century India. Between 1906 and 1910 he was one of the most visible leaders of the Indian freedom struggle, and his writings and activities changed the direction of the movement. This period of his life has been studied in detail by historians in India and abroad. Unfortunately limitations of space have made it impossible to include essays dealing primarily with his political career in this volume' Most of the writers whose essays have been included allude to his historical circumstances, which were defined above all by Britain's political and cultural hegemony over India. Aurobindo put his life on the line by fighting British rule, but he also made good use of the opportunities (educational, cultural, and judicial) that the Empire offered some of its subjects. Several of the authors explore this paradoxical situation as they situate Aurobindo in the cultural and political life of his time.

Situating Aurobindo Culturally and Politically
Aurobindo achieved distinction as a writer and thinker using European literary and intellectual tools, but he did so in a distinctively Indian way.

As a poet, he wrote in English, drew on his knowledge of European literature, and used European literary forms; but he based many of his poems on themes from Indian mythology and often gave expression to mystical experiences that were steeped in the Indian spiritual tradition. In their essays, Verma, Hartz, and Raine examine the multicultural context of Aurobindo's writing, while Ulrich explains how Aurobindo applied the lessons of literature to his political and spiritual thinking.

As a political thinker, Aurobindo drew on modern European liberalism, but he decisively rejected the colonialist assumptions that few Europeans bothered to question. He based his opposition to European imperialism on the claim that the universal rights and privileges articulated by European theorists applied to the peoples of Asia as well, but at the same time he affirmed that India's spiritual culture was essentially superior to European materialism. This has led some historians of post- independence India to speak of a conflict between the political and religious elements of his thought. The apparent dichotomy, as Sartori, Bose, and Chimni show, was not as clear-cut as it is sometimes made out to be.

In his mature political and social thought, Aurobindo drew heavily on his knowledge of ancient and modern European and Indian history, and sparingly on European social theory. The influence of modern thinkers is evident mainly in his terminology, as in his borrowings from Karl Lamprecht and Auguste Comte; but he did engage to a limited extent with the social and political concerns of nineteenth-century social critics, such as Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. Looking beyond both liberalism and socialism, he sought forms of political and social organizations in which ethical and spiritual values were given at least as much importance as economic development, a point stressed by Bose and Chimni, who find much of contemporary interest in books such as A Defence of Indian Culture and The Ideal of Human Unity.

Like Herbert Spencer (whose works he may never have read), Aurobindo applied the idea of evolution to the history of social groups and institutions, but he looked beyond positivism on the one hand and religion on the other to the advent of an age in which 'the present type of humanity' would be transformed 'into a spiritualised humanity' In so doing, he was applying ideas developed in his metaphysical and spiritual works to the field of political and social theory.

Aurobindo affirmed that his philosophy was the intellectual expression of his spiritual experiences, a point I will return to later. But as Bhushan and Garfield, and Chaudhuri explain, the form and substance of his philosophy was determined to some extent by the intellectual climate of early-twentieth-century India. Obliged by the colonial situation to come to terms with European modernity, philosophers in India had adopted Advaita Vedanta as an authentically Indian alternative to European metaphysics. But Advaita Vedanta, whatever its merits as a philosophy, was open to attack by political and social critics who felt that India needed to assert itself in the practical spheres of life. The doc- trine of maya or world-illusion, they said, was a poor intellectual basis for a country contending with colonialism and confronted with serious social and economic problems. Aurobindos response, say Bhushan and Garfield, was to supplant Shankaracharya's doctrine of maya with a doctrine of lila: the play of the Divine in a real and valuable universe. This meant rejecting Advaita Vedanta's dismissive attitude towards the active life and the body. In Aurobindo's philosophy, Chaudhuri writes, there is 'no ultimate dichotomy or discontinuity between the Self and the body-mind structure' of the human being.

The substance of Aurobindo's philosophy is primarily Indian, its form primarily Western. He avoided the traditional textual commentary, preferring the essay and treatise, and the character of his discourse was very much in the European mould. While his main textual sources were the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, he also drew on Western philosophy-for example, the Platonism and Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome, and the evolutionism of modern Europe. It has often been noted that there are a number of similarities between his philosophy and the Idealism of G.WF. Hegel. This has led many writers, among them Odin, Bhushan and Garfield, and Sartori, to assume that he read Hegel and other German Idealists and was directly influenced by them. He denied any such influence, writing in an autobiographical note that he read just two pages of Kant and 'a small book on Hegel' that 'left no impression' on him. But he did concede that he picked up 'some general ideas' from his reading of European thinkers, and it would be possible to argue that he incorporated such ideas into his philosophical and spiritual synthesis.

While he acknowledged some influence from textual sources, Aurobindo insisted that his philosophy was the expression in intellectual language of the knowledge he gained through spiritual experience. 'I tried to realise what I read [in works like the Upanishads] in my spiritual experience and succeeded: he wrote, 'in fact I was never satisfied till experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy, not on ideas by themselves." Stoeber, Brown, and McDermott acknowledge the importance of spiritual experience in Aurobindo's thinking, but they also look at factors (social, political, and intellectual) that influenced or accompanied the course of his spiritual development. As McDermott writes: The relationship between socio- political and spiritual concerns needs to be analyzed at every stage: if we are to understand Aurobindo's 'total vision and significance'.

Brown, like Bhushan and Garfield, situates Aurobindo's writings within the intellectual framework of colonial India. The notion of 'avataric evolutionism', which had been developed by nineteenth- century thinkers in response to European science, was taken up by Aurobindo as a means to put spiritual meaning into the Darwinian idea of evolution. Stoeber looks into the biographical and historical context of Aurobindo's use of Tantric imagery, focusing in particular on 'the appropriation of Tantric symbolism by the nationalist movement' in which Aurobindo was a major actor." Stoeber goes on to examine the influence of Tantric ideas on Aurobindo's mature philosophy, thus providing a corrective to interpretations that depict him as a representative of the Vedic-Vedantic tradition and nothing more. Aurobindo himself made it clear that his spiritual and philosophical synthesis was a combination of Vedic-Vedantic and Tantric elements. 'Veda and Vedanta are one side of the One Truth: he wrote in a letter, 'Tantra with its emphasis on Shakti [Power] is another.' In Vedanta, the practitioner looks to the Conscious Soul or Purusha in pursuit of spiritual knowledge, whereas in Tantra, as he explained in The Synthesis of Yoga, the focus is on 'Prakriti, the Nature-Soul', and the aim is to learn and apply 'the intimate secrets of this Will-in-Power' to attain 'mastery, perfection, liberation, beatitude'.




  Acknowledgements vii
  Introduction ix
  Section One: Poetry and Criticism 1
1 Sri Aurobindo as a Poet: A Reassessment 5
2 The Everlasting Yes: Savitri. the Epic of Affirmation 30
3 The Future Poetry 57
4 Poetic Influences on the Development of Aurobindos Spiritual and Nationalistic Convictions 65
  Section Two: Political and Social Thought 89
5 The Transfiguration of Duty in Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita 93
6 The Spirit and Form of an Ethical Polity: A Meditation on Aurobindos Thought 111
7 Retrieving "Other" Visions of the Future: Sri Aurobindo and the Ideal of Human Unity 130
8 Sri Aurobindo on the Ideal Social Order 154
  Section Three: Philosophical Thought 165
9 The Philosophy and Yoga of Sri Aurobindo 169
10 Sri Aurobindo and Hegel on the Involution-Evolution of Absolute Spirit 181
11 Bringing Brahman Down to Earth: Llliivdda in Colonial India 197
12 Ethical Skepticism in the Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo 217
  Section Four: Spiritual Thought 231
13 Colonial and Post-colonial Elaborations of Avataric Evolutionism 235
14 Tantra and Saktism in the Spirituality of Aurobindo Ghose 253
15 The Experiential Basis of Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga 287
  Other Essays of Interest 299
  A Guide to the Works of Sri Aurobindo Cited in This Volume 302
  About the Editor and Contributors 304
  Index 307

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