Sri Aurobindo: A Postcolonial Reader
Postcolonial response in colonial India
Compiled from the Writings of Sri Aurobindo
|Price: Rs 800|
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
|Publisher: Centre for Sri Aurobindo Studies, Kolkata, in collaboration with Maha Bodhi Book Agency|
About Sri Aurobindo: A Postcolonial Reader
The editorial premise of this compilation from the works of Sri Aurobindo is to demonstrate how, long before the formal articulation of the postcolonial, anti-imperial spirit in the closing decades of the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo had focused on the complex nature of the opposing ideas behind the West-East cultural confrontation and rejected the Western interpretation of India's ancient culture. After a scholarly introduction the editor has arranged selected texts by Sri Aurobindo in five categories: his writings on the Veda, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Indian culture, and the beginnings of a linguistic study.The second part contains additonal texts by Sri Aurobindo related to these five categories.
In the academic and literary-cultural world we live in, postcolonialism is understood as an intellectual movement that arose in the aftermath of political emancipation from erstwhile colonial powers in various parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean during the early and mid-twentieth century. While anti-colonial figures campaigned actively against political and economic subjugation of native populations, postcolonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Edward Said and others drew our attention to the manner in which colonialism was internalized by the native elites under the influence of the dominant sections of the imperial West. This movement was spearheaded from the 1970s onward by leading Indian intellectuals such as Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha, and nearer home, by thinkers like Meenakshi Mukherjee and Harish Trivedi. For the first time, scholars began to pay close attention to the manner in which cultures functioned and “subjectivities” were “constructed”, the latter a favorite expression of the postcolonial thinkers. In the late 1980s, a new school of postcolonial study, called the subaltern, was created by scholars like Ranajit Guha who carefully looked at history “from below”. The movement gained intellectual strength from Marxist thinkers in Britain such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) was a path-breaking volume that exposed the Eurocentric bias of the colonial West. His students at Columbia University, like Gauri Viswanathan in Masks of Conquest, underlined the motivations for the introduction of English literary education by the British Raj in colonial India.
While many of these movements in academia and the media have led to useful intellectual churnings and generated a drive towards concepts such as hybridity and multiculturalism, they have also often resulted in hasty generalizations and a wholesale condemnation of movements and thinkers that stemmed from the West. Such facile biological and cultural determinism as a fad has also done a great deal of harm to understanding the complex manner in which cultures and societies function and the way we see the working of the dialogue of civilizations. In fact, the term civilization seems to have been banished from the current lexicon as passé.
It is in this context that we need to see works such as Sri Aurobindo: A Postcolonial Reader. While new volumes of this kind are certainly welcome, we need to carefully think through the range of similarities and, more crucially, the differences that exist between Sri Aurobindo and the postcolonial thinkers that are discussed above. The fact that the volume comes from Jadavpur University, whose predecessor was the National Council of Education (NCE), makes the publication noteworthy. The NCE was founded in 1906 to provide education on national lines and under national control, and Sri Aurobindo, leaving a prestigious post in Baroda, became the first principal of the Bengal National College and School started under its auspices.
Sri Aurobindo, by all accounts, spoke for the need to decolonize the Indian mind. His writings in The Foundations of Indian Culture and his essays such as “The Origins of Aryan Speech” powerfully reveal the manner in which Western theory has blinded us to the inner spiritual truths of sacred texts. But was Sri Aurobindo a postcolonial thinker?
In her introduction (especially on pages 18 and 19), the editor Sati Chatterjee rests her claim based solely on the argument that the European knowledge system constructs the East or the non-West as the “other”, and sees it as derivative or secondary. She brings in figures such as Ania Loomba, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha to buttress her arguments. For one thing, not all of them take the same position, and more crucially, it has to be noted that the postcolonial thinkers themselves rely primarily on cultural and material readings of the texts; they are, as a rule, unsympathetic to texts and world views that are regarded as sacred and of the inner spiritual world. Such thinkers would have huge problems if they were to be brought into supporting the Vedas and the Upanishads from the Aurobindonean point of view.
Regretfully, the Introduction to this volume does not foreground the issues and problems of postcolonialism as a movement, and as a theory. It does not delve sufficiently into the genesis of the movement, its ideological and cultural underpinnings, its oppositional and adversarial stance towards religion and spirituality and a general attitude of disfavor of the sacred. Nor does it provide a persuasive rationale linking postcolonialism as understood today with the choice of the texts in the anthology. While the volume seems to have a sense of novelty as seen in the title, it may not hold its ground in the larger world of postcolonial thought and research. After all, a compilation of texts, however sympathetic the point of view, does not become a Reader unless the texts are bound by a common thread and logic. It is in this sense that Sri Aurobindo: A Postcolonial Reader does not live up to expectations.
In contrast, we may look at a significant work that has just appeared on this very subject, a book I have had the pleasure to review for the India International Centre Quarterly in a forthcoming issue. In Cultural Politics in Modern India: Postcolonial Prospects, Colourful Cosmopolitanism, Global Proximities, Makarand Paranjape astutely brings in figures such as Gandhi, Tagore and Sri Aurobindo and reveals the working of alternate modernities, cosmopolitanism and postcolonialism in the Indian context. Paranjape uses the theoretical and methodological tools of the Western academy to argue that materiality and spirituality need not be seen in binary or dualistic terms. Indeed, “historicity and specificity of textual production” can coexist with the sacred readings of texts. We can learn from D. D. Kosambi’s reading of the Gita while going beyond it.
At 548 pages and a price of Rs 800 the volume may be beyond the reach of the general reader. Reduced in size, and with a more cogent set of arguments in the Introduction, a future edition might have greater appeal to those who see the relevance of Sri Aurobindo’s thought to our times.
Dr Sachidananda Mohanty is Professor and former Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He is currently the Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Orissa.