India must choose her own path to modernity by assimilating the best of the East and the West to blaze a new trail into the future Image Credit: Shutterstock

I had noted in an earlier column how the 75th anniversary of India’s freedom on Aug. 15 also coincides with the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). This never before, never again conjuncture give us occasion to reflect on the ongoing and as yet incomplete Indian renaissance.

What was called the Bengal or Indian renaissance began in the nineteenth century under the aegis of the British colonisation of India. It was marked by India’s first major expose to the modern West as well as an invigorating rediscovery of the classical Indian past. These twin impulses led, eventually, to the fight for India’s liberation from colonialism and the painful road to an independent, albeit divided subcontinent.

In the Indo-British encounter in the 19th century a great many attitudes, approaches, and positions became evident on both sides. While the exact nature and outcome of this encounter are still topics of debate, what is generally considered indisputable is that a new consciousness came into being.

The vanguard who spearheaded this consciousness was a new intelligentsia derived from precisely those classes which were an outcome of colonialism. The paradox of history is that though they owed their existence to colonialism, they also grew to resist it.

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This paradoxical character of the Indian ruling elites continues to this day, still leading to a cultural confusion and a crisis of identity which, it would seem, each generation must confront all over again and attempt to resolve. The very nature of this encounter, then, is of a “perpetual crisis,” both threat and opportunity in present times as it was in the past.

Those involved in the shaping of India’s destiny cannot but become embroiled in it. Perhaps India@75 and Sri Aurobindo@150 is the opportune occasion to resolve this crisis. If India manages to do so, we might actually accomplish in the next 25 years the fruition of the as yet incomplete project of the Indian renaissance.

This would imply a clear understanding the modern world, including the tremendous capacities unleashed by science, technology, and the global economic and political system. At the same time a recognition and reorganisation of India’s national life so that she can fulfil her destiny in the community of nations in the world by being a moral force for the better as well as a beacon of spiritual succour and hope for humankind.

Few understood India’s tremendous challenges and opportunities in this regard as well as Sri Aurobindo. When Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of four essays on “The Renaissance in India,” the battle for India’s freedom was far from won.

Indeed, Sri Aurobindo himself was in the thick of it, having been at the forefront of the national struggle for a brief period from 1907-1910, before he withdrew from active politics to devote himself to yoga in Pondicherry. There, from his retreat, he wrote most of his major works, serialising them from 1914-1921 in his own journal, Arya. It was also in the pages of Arya in 1918 that “The Renaissance in India” appeared.

Can what happened in Bengal in the early 19th century be called a renaissance? “The renaissance in India” was actually the title of James H. Cousins’ book (1918) and of Sri Aurobindo’s series of essays in Arya later in the same year. Both clearly derive from the notion of the Bengal renaissance, a term used to encompass the broad and fundamental manner in which Indian society changed with the colonial impact.

This is how David Kopf defines it in “Hermeneutics versus History” (1980): “Renaissance” has referred to, among other things, Bengal’s contribution to a modernised India, the earliest modernisation of a vernacular language and literature, the emergence of a historical consciousness, the search for a new identity in the modern world, and the reconstruction of Hindu tradition to suit modern needs.

Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo Image Credit: Aurobindo Ashram

“Renaissance” has also been identified with social reform and religious reformation, cultural and political nationalism, asceticism and the spirit of capitalism, and with such intellectual currents as rationalism, scientism, and secularism.”

According to David Kopf, the word “renaissance” was first used by Rammohun Roy who reportedly told the Scottish missionary, Alexander Duff, “I began to think that something similar to the European renaissance might have taken place here in India.”

The great Indian historian, Jadunath Sarkar, writing in 1943, just four years before independence, was even more categorical and enthusiastic in his celebration of this transformation in India: “It was truly a Renaissance, wider, deeper, and more revolutionary than that of Europe after the fall of Constantinople ... under the impact of British civilisation [Bengal] became the pathfinder and light-bringer to the rest of India.”

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, perhaps the greatest Anglophile of the last century, dedicated his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, published four years after independence, “To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: ‘Civis Britannicus Sum’ because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British Rule.”

Sri Aurobindo’s early thoughts on the renaissance appear in his laudatory series of essays on Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, published in seven instalments in Indu Prakash, a Bombay based, bilingual Marathi-English weekly newspaper, between 16 July 1894 and 27 August 1894.

Sri Aurobindo located Bankim’s formation in a society “the most extraordinary perhaps that India has yet seen … the theatre of a great intellectual awakening. A sort of miniature Renaissance was in process.”

Later, his enthusiasm was not only tempered, but also superadded to it was a clear articulation of India’s role in the unfolding history of humanity. It is to these more mature views that we shall turn next.

They offer a clue how India must choose her own path to modernity neither rejecting the advances of the West nor being subservient to them but assimilating the best of the East and the West to blaze a new trail into the future.

[To be continued]