This is Part II of the Renaissance series. Read Part I: India’s Renaissance is still unfinished
In my column published a fortnight ago ahead of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, I had argued that India’s renaissance is as yet incomplete. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech from the ramparts of the historic red fort in the national capital of New Delhi on August 15 also seemed to hint as much, although he framed it not as an unfinished project but as a golden opportunity.
According to Modi, the next 25 years, when India approaches its centennial celebrations as an independent nation, would be an amrit kaal or ambrosial epoch. But, he exhorted his countrymen and women, for that to happen, there has to be a united push to make India great once again. The logical ask would be what are the desiderata [requirements] for such a transformation to realise?
If we go by the writings of [philosopher] Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the 150th anniversary of whose birth India is also observing, then the road map would necessitate the complete transformation of India’s national life, nothing short, in fact, of “new creation”. Writing a hundred years ago in a series of essays called “The Renaissance in India,” Sri Aurobindo had observed: “In the outward life of the nation we are still in a stage of much uncertainty and confusion, very largely due to political conditions. But the first period of superficial assimilation and aping of European ideas is over and vehement religion of Indian patriotism has expressed itself….”
[A] uniquely Indian response needs to be pushed to its logical culmination in the next quarter-century in order to fulfil the promise of the Indian renaissance.
I believe that this is nearly as true of today’s India as it was of Sri Aurobindo’s. As he put it, “Indian society is in a still more chaotic stage; the old forms are crumbling away while the new is still powerless to be born.” Indeed, India has achieved much in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres in the last 75 years, weathering the horrifying bloodletting of the partition, the death or displacement of millions, an exchange of populations unprecedented in world history, and a religious civil war from whose consequences we are yet to recover fully.
In addition, India has had to face several conflicts and wars on its borders, both with Pakistan and China. These disputes are yet to be resolved fully. Unrest and insurgency within the nation’s borders, a countrywide Emergency in which constitutional freedoms and civil rights were suspended, economic challenges, political uncertainty, natural disasters, and a recent and still ongoing global pandemic are among the extraordinary tests and trials that the world’s largest democracy and possibly most populous state has had to overcome. It is to India’s credit that it has acquitted itself creditably, whereas many others, with less difficult or daunting tribulations, might have or have already gone under.
In this context, revisiting Sri Aurobindo’s ideas can prove profitable, in fact, invaluable. Speaking with great enthusiasm about the Indian renaissance in his early articles soon after his return to India in 1893, Sri Aurobindo describes the immense impact of Western ideas on the Indian mind:
“An ardent and imaginative race, long bound down in the fetters of a single tradition, had had suddenly put into its hands the key to a new world thronged with the beautiful or profound creations of Art and Learning. From this meeting of a foreign Art and civilisation with a temperament differing from the temperament which created them, there issued, as there usually does issue from such meetings, an original Art and an original civilisation. Originality does not lie in rejecting outside influences but in accepting them as a new mould into which our own individuality may run.”
A thawing of old moral custom
The year of these pronouncements is 1894, when he served the Maharaja of Baroda in various administrative departments, and still signed his name as “Arvind A. Ghosh.” What is striking is the eagerness, even poetic eloquence, with which Sri Aurobindo describes the renaissance in his early writing.
His more considered reflections, which we shall come to later, were much more sober, if not sceptical. Though so positive about the renaissance at first, he was also quick to note that the new social and political ideas that arose were “on a somewhat servilely English model.” It was “a thawing of old moral custom” that characterised the first phase of the Indian renaissance. What happened was that “The calm, docile, pious, dutiful Hindu ideal was pushed aside with impatient energy, and the Bengali, released from the iron restraint which had lain like a frost on his warm blood and sensuous feeling, escaped joyously into the open air … the young Bengali felt vividly its joy, warmth and sensuousness.”
This is a remarkable assessment, especially because this period was characterised by so much reform in India’s institutionalised religious mentality and morality. The loosening of the moral law that Sri Aurobindo speaks of certainly applies to the breaking down of caste and gender barriers, the creation of a new individuality, and unprecedented freedom of thought and knowledge. But instead, the Hindus got somewhat Christianised and Semiticised, either through outright conversation or reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj or the Arya Samaj.
Much more was needed before India could find her soul. Religious and social reform freed the Hindu mind but also made it imitative and subservient to Western ideas. Sri Aurobindo goes on, as we shall see, to show what is the way out. Neither a slavish imitation of foreign models nor a reaction or hatred of the modern world, with all its new possibilities. This third and uniquely Indian response needs to be pushed to its logical culmination in the next quarter-century in order to fulfil the promise of the Indian renaissance.