This book presents a selection of Sri Aurobindo's political writings and speeches, mostly from the period 1906–10 when he was one of the leaders of the nationalist school of Indian politics that advocated full independence from British rule. During this time he edited and wrote for three newspapers in which the doctrines and principles of this movement were formulated. Some writings from before and after this period are also included, such as the "New Lamps for Old" articles published in 1893–94, his comments on the reform proposals of 1918, and his message of 15 August 1947.
Nations and nationalism are as old as the history of human aggregates. They are also the bête noire
, the favourite whipping-boy of critics and detractors in recent political history. There have been as many models and theories of nations, nationalism and nationhood as there have been of large political formations. There have been Nations and there have been States. While we hear the frequent use of the term "Nation States" in current political lexicon, the equation between the two terms is not always clear and inevitable.
Nationalism has produced some of the greatest idealistic action in the world. Similarly, some highly reprehensible deeds have also been committed in its name. Sandwiched between ethnic community on the one hand and supra-national internationalism on the other, Nationalism has stood like an inscrutable sphinx, a challenge to thinkers, strategists and utopians alike.
Marxism as an ideology of internationalism failed miserably to overcome national rivalries. During the Great War, for instance, the international proletariat could not prevent the outbreak of a global holocaust. Similarly, Stalin attempted to subjugate the radical nationalism of greater Russia into the USSR; just as Tito did forcefully by yoking the Balkan nations of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and the likes into a greater Yugoslavia, only to witness the tragic break up of their dreams and the rebirth of historic nations from Ukraine to the Baltic Republics. Nearer to home, the Indian Nation as a cultural unit dates back to very ancient times, while in its modern political sense it came into being only in 1947.
There has been religious nationalism and there has been secular nationalism too. Religious nationalism has led to fundamentalist or theocratic States such as Iran or Zionist Nation States such as Israel. While religious nationalism caused the birth of the Renaissance in India, paving the way for its eventual liberation from the foreign yoke, such nationalism, as in West Asia, has also been the cause of internecine war and political turmoil.
It is therefore wholly salutary that we now have a new enlarged edition of Sri Aurobindo on Nationalism
— a topic of considerable national and international interest. For nationalism is both a hydra as well as a phoenix. To its detractors it is a hydra-headed monster which refuses to go away, to its apologists and advocates it is like the mythical phoenix that rises for ever from its ashes.
Sri Aurobindo's deep insights into the question of nationalism, in all its myriad aspects, invariably come as thoughtful and provocative and make a new edition extremely relevant to our times. But does the production of this volume match the quality of Sri Aurobindo's thinking on the subject? The title of the volume leads us to expect that the major works of Sri Aurobindo on the subject would be covered. However, our hope is soon belied. The subtitle on the inside page indicates that these are "Selected Writings and Speeches". Fair enough! However, we soon come to know that most of the writings are from 1906-1910. If this is so, then why shouldn't this significant detail be imprinted on the cover page itself as subtitle? It has all the advantages of precision, focus and clarity. There is a considerable body of writings by Sri Aurobindo on nationalism, some of which can be found in the The Foundations of Indian Culture
as well as in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity
and War and Self-Determination
. Sri Aurobindo also speaks of nationalism in many letters, some of which appear in the volume On Himself
. It is only fair to expect that the title of the volume should delimit the areas.
The absence of a serious critical introduction is most acutely felt. Such an introduction could have placed all the writings in the volume in their historical context. More importantly, this would have underlined their contemporary socio-cultural relevance, especially in the post Cold War era. Above all, we need to show their paramount importance to our own times, especially when we are in the process of defining the Indian national identity. A critical introduction in the case of a new anthology is a common practice, and, I believe, would be our biggest tribute to Sri Aurobindo as the foremost intellectual of our century. As one goes through the volume, again and again, one is struck by the underlying continuity and supreme relevance of Sri Aurobindo's thoughts and ideas to our situation. In some of the writings such as "The Meaning of Freedom" (p. 475) and "The Hindu Sabha" (p. 481), one finds a direct answer to some of the vexing problems facing our nation. A critical introduction would allow such issues to be highlighted and the readers' attention directed to the contribution of Sri Aurobindo to the great contemporary debates.
The remarkable thing is that while practically everything in the volume that Sri Aurobindo wrote were occasional pieces, they always went beyond the mere local or temporal. A wide historic sweep almost with a cosmic dimension characterizes the writings. Whether about freedom, self-rule, the bourgeoisie, imperialism or education, the occasions become merely a backdrop to ideas that seem to outlast history. And so, when Sri Aurobindo addresses the audience in National College or Andhra University, we forget the immediate setting, we see the larger vision that he has about university education, its role in the national context and the use of the linguistic factor for the reorganisation of the Indian provinces.
It has to be noted that the States Reorganisation on linguistic basis took place in 1956 against great opposition. Sri Aurobindo's views on this matter in 1948 turned out to be prophetic!
As journalistic writing, the pieces are also polemical and hard-hitting. The writer is sure of his facts and shows a remarkable mastery over the complexity of the situation. This is visible in matters as different as his response to the Home Rule document of Annie Besant and most of the essays from Bande Mataram
Those who are concerned about the grave crisis in India today should read in particular "Swaraj and the Coming Anarchy" (p.269), "The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity" (p.228) and above all "The Hindu Sabha" (p.481). For here we find all the answers to two of the crucial problems in India, namely, cultural nationalism and social justice. In one, Sri Aurobindo affirms the baneful influence of caste stratification and the need for democratic power sharing, and in the other, he rejects the option of Hindu Nationalism in modern times. "We do not understand Hindu nationalism as a possibility under modern conditions", he says. His answer is clear. Though largely Hindu, it has to be a nationalism that is plural, composite and encompass all the cultural and religious strands of the land (p.484).
Thus, both in its range and scope, Sri Aurobindo's essays on nationalism make incredibly fresh reading. I hope subsequent editions may include an editorial perspective that does greater justice to the vision of Sri Aurobindo.
Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty
Associate Professor, Department of English
University of Hyderabad