A few decades before India became free, Sri Aurobindo addressed at considerable length* the intriguing question of whether she had ever needed a renaissance and if it would differ from the European if she were to have one. He explained that the European Renaissance had not been an awakening per se but “an overturn and reversal, a seizure of Christianised, Teutonised, feudalised Europe by the old Graeco-Latin spirit”. In contrast, India’s Renaissance was more likely to resemble the “Celtic movement in Ireland, the attempt of a reawakened national spirit to find a new impulse of self-expression”. Sri Aurobindo felt that India had suffered from the “bitter effects of the great decline which came to a head in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” and was in need of a renaissance. He further indicated that the harmful effects of a superimposed European culture had coincided inwardly with India’s “increasing torpor of the creative spirit in religion and art” at a time when “science and philosophy and intellectual knowledge had long been dead or petrified”. Sri Aurobindo was clear that India’s Renaissance had indeed already begun and that spirituality had been its “starting-point”. However, he clarified that the renaissance was not yet general and that only “when a greater light prevails” one would be able to speak of it “not only in prospect but in fact”.
The present article entitled “Indian Renaissance: the Spiritual Background” is the 4th one in our series and is written by the well-known writer Shri Manoj Das. This draws heavily from Sri Aurobindo’s writings and effectively complements some of Mitra’s theories (presented in the previous article) to suggest that India’s Renaissance was midwifed by Reason, a cultural reawakening, a strong vital impulse for freedom, and the superior light of a great spiritual past.
Manoj Das is an acclaimed writer, columnist, and Professor based in Pondicherry, India. He has won numerous awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Sahitya Academy award.
Further Reading: The Renaissance in India with A Defence of Indian Culture
Indian Renaissance: the Spiritual Background
IN the second decade of this century when the term ‘Indian Renaissance’ was very much in the air, James H. Cousins, scholar and poet, wondered if the word ‘Renaissance’ holds good in India’s case at all, for, he believed, India was ever awake and the concept of reawakening was not relevant to her.
Cousins was one of those savants whose visions penetrated the surface and were focused on the essence of things. He had been wonder-struck by the spirit of the Indian civilisation that had withstood the tides of time which had swept away many a great civilisation.
While one feels grateful to Cousins for the profundity of his observation, upon an objective review which must take both external and internal aspects of the situation into consideration, one has to conclude that whatever be India’s achievements in the past, she had entered an ominous phase of decline spread over a couple of centuries and a time came when, be it coincidental or providential, a galaxy of great men appeared on the scene simultaneously or one after another in rapid succession, and did much to uplift the fallen nation. And a vital portion of their effort went to hastening a resurrection of the nation’s spirit — her spirituality.
The role of Spirtuality in Indian life
The greater the truth behind a concept, the greater is its misuse. Spirituality is a phrase that stands for such a concept. Often it is used for religion or spiritualism or some supernatural phenomena and often to mean an other-worldliness and asceticism. Indeed, several developments and deviations in course of a long time were responsible for such misunderstanding of what was a natural go with the human soul. However let us see the true place of spirituality in Indian life as Sri Aurobindo puts it in The Renaissance in India:
“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. She was alive to the greatness of material laws and forces; she had a keen eye for the importance of the physical sciences; she knew how to organise the arts of ordinary life. But she saw that the physical does not get its full sense until it stands in right relation to the supra-physical; she saw that the complexity of the universe could not be explained in the present terms of man or seen by his superficial sight, that there were other powers behind, other powers within man himself of which he is normally unaware, that he is conscious only of a small part of himself, that the invisible always surrounds the visible, the suprasensible the sensible, even as infinity always surrounds the finite. She saw too that man has the power of exceeding himself, of becoming himself more entirely and profoundly than he is,—truths which have only recently begun to be seen in Europe and seem even now too great for its common intelligence. She saw the myriad gods beyond man, God beyond the gods, and beyond God his own ineffable eternity; she saw that there were ranges of life beyond our life, ranges of mind beyond our present mind and above these she saw the splendours of the spirit. Then with that calm audacity of her intuition which knew no fear or littleness and shrank from no act whether of spiritual or intellectual, ethical or vital courage, she declared that there was none of these things which man could not attain if he trained his will and knowledge; he could conquer these ranges of mind, become the spirit, become a god, become one with God, become the ineffable Brahman. And with the logical practicality and sense of science and organised method which distinguished her mentality, she set forth immediately to find out the way. Hence from long ages of this insight and practice there was ingrained in her her spirituality, her powerful psychic tendency, her great yearning to grapple with the infinite and possess it, her ineradicable religious sense, her idealism, her Yoga, the constant turn of her art and her philosophy.”
Spirituality flourished because India had a “stupendous vitality, …an inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, an almost unimaginably prolific creativeness”
Sri Aurobindo continues:
“But this was not and could not be her whole mentality, her entire spirit; spirituality itself does not flourish on earth in the void, even as our mountain tops do not rise like those of an enchantment of dream out of the clouds without a base. When we look at the past of India, what strikes us next is her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her almost unimaginably prolific creativeness. For three thousand years at least, — it is indeed much longer, — she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many-sidedness, republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts and poems and all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries, fine crafts, — the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity. She creates and creates and is not satisfied and is not tired; she will not have an end of it, seems hardly to need a space for rest, a time for inertia and lying fallow. She expands too outside her borders; her ships cross the ocean and the fine superfluity of her wealth brims over to Judea and Egypt and Rome; her colonies spread her arts and epics and creeds in the Archipelago; her traces are found in the sands of Mesopotamia, her religions conquer China and Japan and spread westward as far as Palestine and Alexandria, and the figures of the Upanishads and the sayings of the Buddhists are re-echoed on the lips of Christ. Everywhere, as on her soil, so in her works there is the teeming of a superabundant energy of life. European critics complain that in her ancient architecture, sculpture and art there is no reticence, no holding back of riches, no blank spaces, that she labours to fill every rift with ore, occupy every inch with plenty. Well, but defect or no, that is the necessity of her superabundance of life, of the teeming of the infinite within her. She lavishes her riches because she must, as the Infinite fills every inch of space with the stirring of life and energy because it is the Infinite.” 
Other than spirituality and vitality, intellectuality was the third power of ancient Indian spirit
Sri Aurobindo further explains that this prolific abundance of energy and joy of life and creation do not make all that the spirit of India has been in the past. There was also a third power of ancient Indian spirit. That was a strong intellectuality at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. He also makes it clear: “It is a great error to suppose that spirituality flourishes best in an impoverished soil with the life half-killed and the interest discouraged and intimidated… It is when the race has lived most richly and thought most profoundly that spirituality finds its heights and its depths and its constant and many-sided fruition.”
The great spiritual tradition, however, had suffered a tragic reversal in India’s national life. Rituals, once the signs and symbols of a truth, had come to usurp the place of the truth itself. A dangerous dichotomy was encouraged between the so-called worldly life and mystic aspirations of the soul. Spirituality was presented as the very antonym of materialism.
India’s Renaissance was midwifed by Reason, a cultural reawakening, a strong vital impulse for freedom, and the superior light of a great spiritual past
If long is the story of this age of darkness, well known too are the names of the torch-bearers whose advent brought in the renaissance. In a large population resigned to torpor, there must be many who felt restless with the state of affairs; among them there must be some who would revolt against the situation. But very few would be those who would not only revolt, but also have the vision of a way out of the impasse and the courage to project their vision before a surprised nation.
Of course, there were situations which the awakened minds wished to turn to the nation’s advantage. India, despite being divided into so many kingdoms, was one nation since time immemorial. She had her own definition of nationhood, peculiar and spiritual, which might not fit into a European definition of a nation. But the British occupation made her a nation in the European sense too. The British masters certainly had come to take and not to give. But there came a far-sighted savant who was determined to extract as much advantage as possible from the prevailing situation. He was Raja Rammohun Roy. A great champion of India’s heritage though, he wanted Indians to learn English. This was only a sign of his urge to lead his nation out of an obscure and oppressed state into the light of an international outlook. The late Sishirkumar Mitra observes in his Resurgent India (perhaps the best study of the Indian Renaissance made by any historian of our time):
“In his typically Indian synthetic mind Rammohun visualised the essential unity of the human race and he felt that it would become real in international life when there would form a larger synthesis of the cultures of the East and the West and that it would be India’s portion to initiate, nurse and foster it. In fact, the makers of New India who came after Rammohun lived and worked for this consummation. A remarkable aspect of what they taught and did was that they recognised life as the field for the evolution of the spirit. The concept of the harmony, even the identity, of these two so-called opposite poles of existence was at the back of the movements right from the beginning and became the natural basis of their growth and expansion. One of the highest truths visioned by the ancient Seers of India, it has ever remained a dynamic element in her historic evolution, a source of strength for her cultural and collective advancement.
“It is their spiritual motive, their universal aim, and their acceptance of life for its ultimate spiritualisation that more or less characterise the movements through which India in modern times has endeavoured to recover her true self for her own well-being as also for the whole human race.”
Sisirkumar Mitra further says that Rammohun “started by introducing Western ideas so that reason might prevail and rid the religious life of the ‘perversions’ that had crept into it. Freedom was indeed an intense passion of Rammohun’s soul; it was freedom that he wanted not only for his own countrymen but for man as man.”
How right Sisirkumar is should be evident from the fact that upon hearing about the successful revolt of the South American Spanish colonies against their oppressors, Rammohun threw a banquet at the Calcutta Town Hall!
The average Western understanding of the Indian heritage was epitomized in
Macaulay’s grotesque observation that “a single shelf of a good European Library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
As a contrast to this, how the enlightened mind of this era looked at the Indian heritage is best reflected in a poem by Henry Derozio.
My Country! in thy days of glory past A beauteous halo circled round thy brow,
And worshipped as deity thou wert —
Where is the glory, where that reverence now?
Thy eagle pinion is chained down at last,
And grovelling in the lowly dust art thou,
Thy minstrel hath no wreath to weave for thee,
Save the sad story of thy misery!
Well — let me dive into the depth of time.
And bring from out of the ages that have rolled A few small fragments of those wrecks sublime,
Which human eye may never more behold;
And let the guerdon of my labour be.
My fallen country! one kind wish for thee!
It is significant that such a poem came from the greatest rebel of the time who stood uncompromisingly against the superstitions and orthodox religious practices of the age.
Rammohun knew the only course left to his people. In the words of Tagore, “His attempt was to establish our peoples on the full consciousness of their own cultural personality, to make them comprehend the reality of all that was unique and indestructible in their civilization and simultaneously to make them approach other civilizations. He devoted himself to the task of rescuing from the debris of India’s decadence the truth of its civilization and to make our people build on them, as the basis, the superstructure of an international culture. Deeply versed in Sanskrit, he revived classical studies”.
Rammohun, in his efforts at transcending the religious creeds, founded the Brahmo Sabha in 1823, the institution later to be known as the Brahmo Samaj. The shrine of the Samaj, built two years later, was open for the people of all castes, religions and races.
If Rammohun had found his truth in the Upanishads, four decades later, Swami Dayananda founded the Arya Samaj, deriving his inspiration from the Vedas. The ease with which Dayananda wielded his spiritual knowledge as a practical weapon in combating the adverse forces that tyrannised India’s soul, was unprecedented. His was not a call to go back in the name of the Vedas, but a command to go forward in the light of the Vedas. To quote Sri Aurobindo again:
“To be national is not to stand still. Rather, to seize on a vital thing out of the past and throw it into the stream of modern life, is really the most powerful means of renovation and new-creation. Dayananda’s work brings back such a principle and spirit of the past to vivify a modern mould. And observe that in the work as in the life it is the past caught in the first jet of its virgin vigour, pure from its sources, near to its root principle and therefore to something eternal and always renewable.”
Both Rammohun and Dayananda stood for spirit’s liberation from bondage to ignorance, religious or otherwise. This spirit finds a clear expression in one of the greatest thinkers and political leaders of the nation, Tilak, who in one of his speeches says:
“The spirit of liberty that animates our activities and guides our movements can never grow old. The spirit of liberty is ever fresh and young and those that have drawn inspiration from it and have begun to work for its achievement through difficulties of every sort are bound to reap the fruit of their labours. Those that earnestly strive for liberty must become free… If you admit the truth of this proposition you must admit that liberty is the birthright of every man. The privilege of being free does not need to be granted by somebody else. Every man who is born comes into the world with this elementary right. This innermost craving of the heart to be free, this intense desire to get one’s liberty, is the essence of human nature… What is called atma (soul) in religious philosophy is known as liberty in the science of politics. Atma exists everywhere; it does not need to be reborn. Similarly the love of liberty exists in every heart and I am only awakening you to the consciousness of its existence. Some people forget that they have this atma or love of liberty — the reason being their ignorance.”
While both the historic institutions of reformation, the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj were against the practice of idol-worship, a profound mystic, Sri Ramakrishna, “the consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million of people”, whose contribution to the resurgence of India, through Swami Vivekananda, is of untold importance, did the idol-worship with a vengeance. The significance of such a paradox can be appreciated in the perspective of the Indian situation — its complexity. While the former stood for the superiority of an enlightened reason over superstitions that kept the Indian masses pinned down to a blind state of stagnation, the latter symbolised the superiority of the mystic experiences over reason.
From the pioneers of the India’s Renaissance to the Prophet of Indian Nationalism
The spiritual inspiration that was at the core of the nationalism of the pioneers of the Indian Renaissance, which revealed to Bankim Chandra the Mother in the country, can be traced in many more, culminating in Sri Aurobindo, “the prophet of Indian nationalism”.
Well-known today — although not yet realised as properly as they should be — are the ways Sri Aurobindo showed for India’s emancipation from the foreign rule. He succeeded in revolutionising the political climate of the country. Freedom was no more a utopia or a remote prospect to be realised piecemeal. Its achievement was a must, its achievement in a brave way was a must — and the resolutions sponsored by Sri Aurobindo on the methods of the freedom struggle in the Calcutta Congress of 1906 and the great storm at Surat the next year when the moderates refused to reiterate these resolutions marked the beginning of the end of the British rule. Needless to remind anybody that the principles evolved by him were followed all through the succeeding decades of India’s struggle for freedom, though not always in the spirit and manner Sri Aurobindo would have liked them to be followed. They were the principles of Swadeshi, Non-Cooperation, Boycott etc.
If unique was his contribution to the political emancipation of the country, the other aspect of his impact which was of great significance was to be read in the people’s attitude to the country, of which he was the maker of the mould. It was to look at India as the Mother. In the surging voices shouting Bande Mataram could be felt the vibrations of that sublime emotion which his words carried, “Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is a power, a Godhead…”
The profound spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo — his exposition of the destiny of man — of course do not come within the scope of this paper.
What is intriguing is, at some stage of the later developments, this spiritual vision receded, perhaps giving way to something inferior, something merely moral, if not pseudo-moral, at the best, but something that was easily appealing, which could masquerade as spirituality though totally bereft of the force of spirituality.
Has India’s Renaissance been derailed?
The best of Indian heritage had been built by her seers and her seer-poets. But a time came when a handful of politicians came to think that they were the sole custodians of the nation’s destiny. What is really unfortunate, this arrogant and brazenfaced usurpation by politicians, of the right to have the last say in all matters, has been calmly accepted by the intelligentsia of the country.
To cut short the story, a single episode which should speak eloquently of the situation might be cited. Today everybody realises that had the Indian leadership of the time accepted the proposal of the Cripps Mission, the partition of India, one of the greatest tragedies of history, could have been averted. The one who had realised this in time was Sri Aurobindo. In time did his emissary meet the top leaders and passed on to them Sri Aurobindo’s message that they should accept the proposal. But the message fell on deaf ears.
In a nation that had been built by the seers, the politicians did not even think that “the last great seer” could have had any say even when it concerned a part-liquidation of the nation.
* A paper read at the National Seminar on Indian Renaissance held on the occasion of Mahakavi Vallathol’s Birth Centenary Celebrations at Trivandrum, on 30 September 1978 and 1 October 1978.
 The Renaissance in India (Centenary Edition, Vol. 14), pp. 400.401.
 Ibid., pp. 401.402.
 Ibid., p. 404.
 Sisirkumar Mitra, Resurgent India (First Edition, 1963), p. 55.
 Quoted by K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar in his Indian Writing in English, pp. 35-6.
 Dayananda (Centenary Edition, Vol. 17), p. 335.
 Romain Rolland. https://www.sriramakrishna.in/2018/02/01/romain-rolland/