What would constitute an Indian renaissance? According to revolutionary, poet, philosopher, and yogi, Sri Aurobindo, it would be a spiritual efflorescence.
In his series of essays on the subject published in 1918, he asserts that the true work of the Indian renaissance is not political, economic, intellectual, or even cultural, but uniquely spiritual.
It is a special mission that India must fulfil: “The work of the renaissance in India must be to make this spirit, this higher view of life, this sense of deeper potentiality once more a creative, perhaps a dominant power in the world.”
Today such a view may seem impractical, but this is also what Swami Vivekananda proclaimed from the platform of the World’s Parliament of Religions on 9/11 1893: the end of fanaticism, sectarianism, and the broadening of the minds of humanity as one race and world family.
Sri Aurobindo took these ideas forward to dream not only of new forms of global governance in The Ideal of Human Unity, but also in a higher states of consciousness for all of humanity. It is in this inner, consciousness revolution, that he believed India had a crucial part to play.
In his third essay in the series, Sri Aurobindo boldly predicts that the “spiritual motive” will be the leading force in India. By spirituality, he does not mean either metaphysics or asceticism, but a constructive, life-affirming and vigorous transformation of life, “the reassertion of a spiritual living as a foundation for a new life of the nation.”
In his fourth essay and last essay, he once again stresses that the best course of action to India lies in being herself, recovering her native genius, which is a reassertion of its ancient spiritual ideal.
He takes pains to clarify that India’s spiritual awakening is quite different from a descent into religiosity or irrationality.
Always insisting on the “dynamic and pragmatic,” he warns against “inculcating some obscurantist reactionary principle of mystical or irrational religiosity” that might divert India “from the paths of reason and modernity which she must follow if she is to be an efficient and a well-organised nation able to survive in the shocks of the modem world.”
This then the secret or the key to India’s transformation according to Sri Aurobindo. It consists neither of a retreat from the world into asceticism, nor the recrudescence of fanatical religiosity. Instead, “spirituality is much wider than any particular religion.”
In addition, spirituality includes the mind and the body: “a human spirituality must not belittle the mind, life or body or hold them of small account.”
The spiritual ideal is quite different from the mental or the physical, which are the basis of modern civilization: “The spiritual view holds that the mind, life, body are man's means and not his aims and even that they are not his last and highest means.” The real goal is “to prepare a basis for spiritual realisation and the growing of the human being into his divine nature.”
In this, both philosophy and science can only be helpers and instruments; politics, economics, and sociology too, only the means of arranging the life of human beings in larger groups and collectives.
The spiritual ideal includes and exceeds all these so that it can provide “an increasing embodiment of the divine law of being in life, … a collective advance towards the light, power, peace, unity, harmony of the diviner nature of humanity which the race is trying to evolve.”
Unfortunately, many in India themselves do not believe in this ideal, influenced as they are by Western ideas. The West, on the other hand, without quite abandoning its materialist bias, is opening itself to Indian influences.
After all, “man does not live by bread alone.” In celebrating India@75 and Sri Aurobindo@150 we must find our own unique path because India “can best develop herself and serve humanity by being herself and following the law of her own nature.”
Future of India and the world
This means neither a rejection of all that comes from the West, nor a sort of retreat into too much religion. Indeed “true spirituality,” according to Sri Aurobindo, “rejects no new light.” It is only in the knowledge and conscious application of this ideal, Sri Aurobindo argues, that the future of both India and the world lies.
Whether India can rise up to this task or not is a question that he leaves open: “Whether she will rise or not to the height of her opportunity in the renaissance which is coming upon her, is the question of her destiny.”
The renaissance in India is not a settled fact, something taken for granted as having already occurred. Or even something that is bound to occur in a golden age to come.
Instead, it remains half-hidden in the womb of futurity, waiting to take birth, to come into being, to manifest itself. Sri Aurobindo has given the term a new meaning, understanding, and orientation. It is up to us to ponder over his words and, if we find them ringing true, and to bring them into fruition.
We must decide whether we wish to leave our world worse than how we inherited it or make it at least slightly better for future generations. It is in this choice that the true renaissance of India inheres.
(This think piece concludes the Indian renaissance series)