‘New Nationalism’ and India’s Renaissance – Makarand R. Paranjape

Sri Aurobindo

The new nationalists might differ amongst themselves in their aims and methods but are quite different from the regular Congressmen in that “they are united by … a common faith in India”. This, according to Sri Aurobindo, “is the heart of Nationalism”. – Prof. Makarand R. Paranjape

Not westernised, bourgeois gentlemen, but Samurai—or more appropriate to our civilisation—inspired yogis and dedicated tapasvis, would transform the nation and make India great again. But for this to happen, the spirit of the nation would have to be awakened. This was the message of Sri Aurobindo, whose 150th birth anniversary we are celebrating along with India@75, Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.

A posse of armed inspectors and policemen arrested Sri Aurobindo from his modest digs on 48, Grey Street, Calcutta, on May 2, 1908, in what was to become the famous Alipore Bomb Case. He was charged with “conspiracy” and “waging war against the King”, an offence tantamount to high treason, punishable with death by hanging. Among the papers seized were five unpublished essays, intended for Bande Mataram, the periodical he edited. “The New Nationalism”, one of these, was presented as evidence against him by the prosecution during the trial. It has now been republished in Bande Mataram, Vol. 6 and 7 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (1997; 2002).

This extraordinary essay has great bearing on India’s culture wars of today. In fact, some of our current debates bear an uncanny resemblance to the quarrel between the so-called extremists and moderates or the “garam dal” and the “naram dal” of the Indian freedom struggle. Perhaps, no one articulates what the former stood for more forcefully and clearly than Sri Aurobindo. He refutes the idea that the extremists did not respect the law of the land or that they preferred violent methods to peaceful ones. In fact, he preferred to call them nationalists rather than extremists.

But who, according to Sri Aurobindo, were these “new nationalists”? What did they really stand for in contradistinction to what was imputed to them in the derisive, if not dismissive, term “extremists”? To Sri Aurobindo, the new nationalism then sweeping across India, which Mahatma Gandhi also referred to in the opening chapter of Hind Swaraj (1909), was actually the “negation of the old bourgeois ideals of the nineteenth century.” Its aim was to “transform the bourgeois into the Samurai” and “to extend the workings of the Samurai spirit to the whole nation”.

Sri Aurobindo mocks the prevalent misunderstanding of “extremism”, and “the respectable ease and safety of Congress politics”. He states: “The ordinary Congress politician’s ideas of Nationalism are associated with heated discussions in Committee and Congress, altercations at public meetings, unsparing criticisms of successful and eminent respectabilities, sedition trials, national volunteers, East Bengal disturbances, Rawalpindi riots. To him the Nationalist is nothing more than an “Extremist”, a violent, unreasonable, uncomfortable being whom some malign power has raised up to disturb with his Swaraj and Boycott, his lawlessness and his lathies …”

The new nationalists might differ amongst themselves in their aims and methods but are quite different from the regular Congressmen in that “they are united by … a common faith in India”. This, according to Sri Aurobindo, “is the heart of Nationalism”. The new nationalism, in other words, “is an attempt to create a new nation in India by reviving in spirit and action ancient Indian character, the strong, great and lofty spirit of old Aryavarta, and setting it to use, and mould the methods and materials of modernity for the freedom, greatness and well-being of a historic and immortal people”.

The new nationalism does not advocate “unreasoning violence of spirit and the preference of desperate methods”. It does not “advocate lawlessness for its own sake”. But the law that the new nationalists are “called upon to obey” is not the law of the colonial power imposed upon a conquered people but “the law of the nation, an outgrowth of its organic existence and part of its own accepted system of government”.

What, then, is this law of the nation? Sri Aurobindo repeatedly asserts that it is spirituality. In the opening essay of The Renaissance in India, he says, “Spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinite is native to it. India saw from the beginning,—and, even in her ages of reason and her age of increasing ignorance, she never lost hold of the insight,—that life cannot be rightly seen in the sole light, cannot be perfectly lived in the sole power of its externalities.”

But what is spirituality? As Sri Aurobindo clarifies in The Life Divine, it is neither the “The Materialist Denial” nor “The Refusal of the Ascetic”. Indeed, it is “not a high intellectuality, not idealism, not an ethical turn of mind or moral purity and austerity, not religiosity or an ardent and exalted emotional fervour, not even a compound of all these excellent things; a mental belief, creed or faith, an emotional aspiration, a regulation of conduct according to a religious or ethical formula are not spiritual achievement and experience”.

Instead, according to Sri Aurobindo, “spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature”.

The soul of the triple-bodied Indian nation, with the gross outer body, the subtle body within, and inhabiting “another more deeply hidden” third body, its Shakti, the spirit of the nation, “the source of life and form … unchanging and imperishable”. This great power could be found by a living faith “not in an Anglicised and transmogrified nation” of people “unrecognisable as Indians, but in India of the immemorial past, India of the clouded but fateful present”.

This nation of Sri Aurobindo’s dreams, echoing Bankim’s Durga, was what the Mother was envisioned to be in Anandamath, “India leonine, mighty, crowned with her imperial diadem of the future; a common spirit of enthusiasm, hope, the desire to dare and do all things so that our vision of her future may be fulfilled greatly and soon”.

This, for Sri Aurobindo, is the true meaning and manifestation of the Indian renaissance. – The New Indian Express, 10 October 2022

Prof. Makarand R. Paranjape is a poet and teaches English at JNU. 

Bharat Mata