Articles #9: In this wonderful article, Professor Sisirkumar Mitra points out – what might be true even today – that the world was only aware of “a fraction of the vast literary and philosophical treasures” that had flowed from Sri Aurobindo’s pen. India in 1949, while free from foreign rule, was still traumatized, turbulent and uncertain of her future. Perhaps because of it, Mitra outlines and discusses Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the Indian polity to reassure his reader of the great destiny that still awaited the newly independent nation. He stresses that unlike Sri Aurobindo who had “an intuitive seeing into the very depth of things” most Indian and western historians up until then had been blinded by their prejudices and inadequacies “to the deep and subtle truths of the dynamic and all-embracing spirituality of India”. At the same time, Mitra points out, Sri Aurobindo had strongly negated the idea that “India had her attention always fixed on the contemplation of the Spirit to the total exclusion of the things of life”. Indeed, while “India was great in her spiritual achievements” it was equally true that “she was no less great in her material pursuits”. Citing Sri Aurobindo again, Mitra emphasises the role of the ancient Rishis in rooting India’s socio-religious and political systems in life in stark contrast to Western institutions and their over-reliance on “mechanising reason” and its “deadly tendency to develop …a mechanical state”.
Sisir kumar Mitra was a Professor of History of Civilization and Joint Director of Education, Sri Aurobindo International University Centre, Pondicherry. Formerly Lecturer in Cultural History at Rabindranath Tagore Viswabharati ( World University), Shantiniketan.
Further Reading: https://incarnateword.in/sabcl/14
Sri Aurobindo and Indian Polity
Sisir kumar Mitra
Since his retirement to Pondicherry in 1910 Sri Aurobindo remained for a long time almost a mystery to the general public. It is only recently that he has begun to be more and more prominent to the seeing mind of his countrymen and of people in distant lands. The idea is gaining ground that Sri Aurobindo is a mystic, a philosopher or a spiritual teacher who in his Ashram has been training his disciples in Yogic disciplines. A truth, a very great truth, there certainly is in such appraisements. But it is not all what he really is, what he has actually done and is still now doing in the world of the spirit, in the sphere of literature and thought as well as of action. His works published so far are but a fraction of the vast literary and philosophical treasures that have flowed from his pen during these years of seclusion.
It is impossible by any stretch of imagination to fully measure, or by any critical acumen, to justly evaluate, the literary output of Sri Aurobindo, so stupendous is it in its variety and content. Poems without number, plays, essays literary and historical, philosophical disquisitions, expositions of spiritual ideas and ideals, letters – a vast literature by themselves on a wide range of subjects varying from those of ordinary interest to the Yogic but all of them from his own particular spiritual standpoint – have yet to see the ‘light. Even quite a large part of his published writings, especially those that formed the Arya, has not had that circulation which could have brought home to the intellectual elite of humanity the consummate wisdom, the transcendent truths about the fundamental problems of human existence, which Sri Aurobindo revealed through the pages of the Arya from 1914 to 1921. And has he not said, as an eminent Indian thinker observed, the last word on these problems? The Arya is in a sense an epitome of Aurobindonian thought in many of its aspects.
A Defence of Indian Culture
In one of the sequences in that journal the Master delineated the various expressions of India’s creative soul, primarily as a counter blast – and what a powerful and devastating one at that! – to the vile aspersions cast on Indian culture by the author of ‘India and the Future’, Sir William Archer. The reading public in India, far less in other countries, did not perhaps know how this English vilifier of India compelled Sri Aurobindo to take up the challenge and give a smashing the negative and then importance of which, stands today far outweighed by the positive light it throws on the cultural achievements of India in the past. Indeed, it leaves the reader wondering if there were any similar writings with which to compare the excellence of this revealing exposition of the secret of India’s soul, the essential aim and intention of her historic development, the inner, and therefore, the real significance of the ways in which her children have tried through the ages to give form to their aspirations and strivings.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Sri Aurobindo’s recently published book on Indian Polity – a section of his above-mentioned exposition in the Arya, called ‘A Defence of Indian Culture’, – is that almost all the works, the so-called standard ones too, on the history of India are utter misnomers, entirely lacking in the correct perspective of India’s cultural evolution. An integral vision, a coherent picture, embracing all the manifold aspects of the creative life of the people is rarely found in what passes for the history of India. Unending narrations of political events may tell us much but not everything about a people, since these events as they outwardly are, do not, because they cannot, indicate the real intention of Nature in them, without an understanding of which we know next to nothing of the true history of a country, far less of the forces that have shaped its destiny. The story of India’s political development will be not only inaccurate and incomplete but a fundamentally poor and wrong representation, if it is not told with reference to the true nature and tendency of her racial being, and the psychology that impelled that tendency to fulfil itself in the endeavour of the people to build up a strong collective life based on the ideals set forth in the Dharma-shastras.
Scholars of Indian History blinded to the all-embracing Spirituality of India and the Centre of her Life and Culture
The work of the foreign Indologists for the reconstruction of India’s history must always be gratefully acknowledged. But it must also be said that the writings of most of them as well as of Indian scholars who have followed these Western pioneers, betray defects which greatly detract from their value as a faithful record of India’s historic development through centuries. Besides, the ulterior motives of many of those European writers and their attitude of superiority towards the Indians, because of their long – fortunately now past – political subjection, are not a little responsible for the deliberate attempts they have so often made to belittle ancient India and her greatness and to prove to the world her incapacity to manage her own affairs. But what is more deplorable is that few Indian historians have so far cared to understand the “inwardness” of their country’s history, the central purpose of its existence. And this understanding they can have only through an insight into the true character of India’s culture and civilisation, into the spirit that has inspired and moulded the various expressions of her soul. Their exclusive attachment to the scientific method of the West, confined to the obvious and superficial view of things, has blinded these historians to the deep and subtle truths of the dynamic and all-embracing spirituality of India, the centre of her life and culture.
There must therefore be an intuitive seeing into the very depth of things so that ideas and forces that actualise themselves in the outer actions and movements may be comprehended in their proper implications, and facts appear in their true bearing on the dominant tendency and the characteristic genius of the race.
The history of India must be a true mirror of all the inner and outer activities of her people, showing at the same time what part her soul played in every one of them. It must therefore be rescued from its subservience to ends that are anything but genuinely historical.
Trained in a system of education which is a poor and perverted imitation of what the West had long ago rejected, we have never learnt how to study and appreciate our own past, and no wonder that we should so often exhibit our colossal ignorance of it in all that we are doing today to rebuild our country on the true basis of our national life, as we conceive it. The impact of an alien culture has dulled in us the power to feel what we really are as a race, a race with a magnificent past whose meaning and purpose are being rediscovered and reaffirmed and shown to us in their proper light by a seer like Sri Aurobindo.
As we glance through the pages of Sri Aurobindo’s book on Indian Polity, mentioned above, a book small but closely packed with the thoughts and ideas and visions of a seer, we feel transported back to those splendid days of our past when India showed her incomparable political genius in the building up of powerful republics and vast empires and in administering them with superb efficiency and in accordance with the spiritual bent of her mind, enabling the free individuals in them to live up to the highest ideals of the race, so that there might grow up a collectivity comprising such individuals, and moving towards a perfect form through the perfection of its human constituents. Where is the text-book that has dealt with this deeper truth underlying India’s political endeavours? Foreign writers have distorted facts and desecrated the pages of Indian history with fabrications in order to prove to the world the weakness of our ancient corporate organisations, and our incapacity to govern and build up any homogeneous and progressive body-politic. Even some of our own scholars are not free from such false notions. Moreover, these ideas find support in another wrong view, also widely held, that India had her attention always fixed on the contemplation of the Spirit to the total exclusion of the things of life. Sri Aurobindo’s luminous essay is a flat contradiction of such myths. It exposes and nails to the counter once for all the utter absurdity of such statements. If India was great in her spiritual achievements, she was no less great in her material pursuits, for she regarded them, according to Arthashastra, as the basic condition of her spiritual endeavours. India would not have been able to live the rich and colourful life that she has done through the ages, had her people rejected life as a mere illusion. But, on the contrary, life had no meaning for her if it was denied the scope for the fulfilment of its spiritual possibilities.
India is a conscious formation of the Supreme Shakti
How has India managed to have such a long and chequered existence in history and what is the future it points to? There is in every people a common soul, mind and body. And like the individual man, a people also passes through the cycle of birth, growth and decline. And, if at the last stage the soul or the life-force of a people becomes incapable of a recovery or a renewal, the people dwindles and slowly makes its final exit from the world. In this way have passed away many of the ancient peoples who are only remembered in history as the builders of great civilisations. It is a soul idea or a life idea that really governs and inspires the activities of a people. In the history of the world China and India are the only countries with a more or less unbroken record of ceaseless creative strivings. It is these two ancient peoples alone that have retained their old strength and energy and are able to make ever-new endeavours not unworthy of the greatness of their heritage. In the case of the Chinese this is so because of the indomitable power of life that sustains and guides them towards their high destiny in the future, and in the case of India, because the immortal spirit of her collective being and her inexhaustible creative energy have never failed her whenever after a spell of inactivity or lassitude, she has made an attempt to ascend to a new and higher summit of glory.
India’s ancient seers envisaged in her the Mother, the Infinite and Compassionate Mother of man, a conscious formation of the Supreme Shakti. And her history shows how true this vision has been. The spiritual mind of India, says Sri Aurobindo, regarded life as a manifestation of the Self, the people as a life-body of Brahman in the samasti, the collectivity, the collective Narayana*; the individual as Brahman in the vyasti, the separate Jiva, the individual Narayana. If the physical form of India embodies the Shakti, her human content incarnates Brahman. But to the Tantriks, everything that exists is a form of the Shakti, and to the Vedantin, Brahman pervades everything. And these two ideas find their identity in the transcendent vision of that creative power of Sachchidananda which is ever behind every endeavour of evolutionary Nature to prepare man for a divine existence upon earth. In the acceleration of this all-important preparation India has already taken a hand. It is a goal towards which she is destined to lead mankind by her already acquired spiritual power. That is why after a brief slumber she is again having a new resurgence of her soul. That is why her greatest Poet and Priest of the Spirit is proclaiming today the highest truth of human existence, the truth of a perfect form of man’s social living in which the individual soul rising into a higher consciousness will live in complete harmony with the collective soul of humanity and follow that “sunlit” path of free participation by all in the service and adoration of the One in the Many. This will be the spiritual foundation of the World-State of the future, as envisaged by Sri Aurobindo.
Spirituality is indeed the key-note of the Indian mind. “The master-idea” says Sri Aurobindo, “that has governed the life, culture, social ideas of the Indian people has been the seeking of man for his true spiritual self and the use of life as a frame and means for that discovery and for man’s ascent from the ignorant and natural into the spiritual existence.” As it was thought, and rightly, that for the attainment of this end, the one prerequisite is full freedom and utmost opportunities of self-development for the individual, so also it was believed that man’s collective living could grow into its perfect form only when it was smaller in size, having an individuality of its own, and was therefore better able to achieve its purpose and serve more effectively the larger collectivity of the country to which it belonged.
The Individual, the Village unit and the beginnings of the Nation or Rashtra in India
Every step in the forward march of man is first taken by the individual, the individual who is always the pioneer and the precursor. It is the labour of the individual that fructifies into what we call the progress of the race, for it is to him that the vision first comes as also the urge to give shape and form to it. And what is true of the individual may also be true of the collectivity, but the latter cannot so easily move forward if it is larger in size and lacks compactness and inter-communion, as it happened in ancient times when communications were extremely inadequate to the purpose. Hence the existence then of smaller form of corporate living.
Every individual is more or less a particular type, and the more creative these individuals, the more markedly do they vary, one from the other. These very individuals having developed on the distinctive lines of their swabhava, constitute the greatness and glory of the community to which they belong, and by the variety of their achievements immensely enrich and exalt its cultural life. This is how they aid the general progress of the community, and therefore, its integration into a compact whole with an individuality of its own, composed of racial, cultural, linguistic and geographical factors peculiar to the region inhabited by the community. In the same way such groups can become free participants in the collective existence of a larger whole, having spiritual, cultural and political ideals which in their fundamentals are common to all the constituent groups, each of which by its distinctive characteristics contributes to the progress and well-being of the larger whole. The central State in ancient India emerged out of this larger collective life both as a necessity and as a natural development. It was strengthened, among other factors, by the formation of representative assemblies for the deliberation of matters of common interest to the whole empire. And its growth had always been inspired by the great ideal of the race, the ideal of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Indeed there can be no effective unity unless it evolves out of multiplicity. The many is the strength and contents of the one, even as the one is the truth and essence of the many. The autonomous and progressive units were thus the sustaining limbs of the body-politic or the central State, which stood for the oneness of the collective life of the race.
The beginnings of the State in India may be traced to the Vedic times when the unit of corporate existence starting with the family (Griha or Kula) enlarged itself through the village (Grama), the clan (Vis), the people (Jana) till it embraced the whole country (Rashtra). A region inhabited by a community was called a Janapada which gradually developed into Janapadarajya, a territorial State, and then into Mahajanapadarajya, a larger territorial State, with the central authority vested either in a king or in a popular assembly, the Sabha and the Samiti of the Vedic age, or in both, the latter always limiting the powers and prerogatives of the former. It was this system which formed the framework and the mainspring of the mechanism of the State that evolved later in ancient India. And what is important about it is that notwithstanding the changes made at different epochs in the shape and character of these political structures, the village-unit ever remained the constant and vital factor as the very foundation for their growth and progress, thus showing the individualistic tendency of India’s political being. It is with this village-unit that the Indian idea of democracy is always associated, since all its affairs, secular and religious, used to be looked after by the people’s assembly. The Panchayat system prevalent almost everywhere in India today, has derived from this. Will Durant, the eminent American thinker and historian, believes that the village community of ancient India is the prototype of all forms of self-government and democracy that have ever been evolved in various parts of the world. The Greek Agora, Roman Comitia or German folk-moot, to which may be traced the democratic institutions of modern Europe, are said to be echoes of the Vedic Samiti; but whereas no discussion was permitted in the former assemblies of Europe, the Vedic Samiti, a sovereign assembly of the whole people (Vis), was a deliberative body where speeches were delivered and debates took place.
Republics existed in ancient India
The aim of the Vedic Aryans in these units of community life was to bring together the various parts of the country under the exalting influence of the Aryan culture. That they had a vision of India’s oneness is evident from the river-hymns of the Rig Veda; and their political endeavours indicate that they visualised a vast State representing the collective life of the people and seeking to establish the Aryan ideals as the ideals of the race. The sovereignty of the Dharma as a guiding force in the life of the individual and the collectivity was a later and higher phase, when the social ideals of India had been already defined and systematised, and the units of community life had acquired a more definite shape. These units, as already shown, were formed and sustained by the village democracies and were linked with the larger territorial units that existed at the time.
What really existed and was liberally encouraged was, says Sri Aurobindo, “…. a kind of complex communal freedom and self-determination. Each group unit of the community was a self-determined and self- governing communal body, having its own natural existence and administering its own proper life and business, but always joining with others in the discussion and regulation of matters of mutual or common interest in the general assemblies of the kingdom and empire.” Many of these small states were of a republican character – another proof of their distinctive individuality – which gave them much of their strength and stability. The Buddha once said that if the republican character could be maintained in its purity and vigour, the state would remain ever invincible even against the attack of such a powerful emperor as Ajatasatru of Magadha. During the Buddha’s time ten such republics existed in northern India, of which the Lichchavis of Vaisali were the most famous. There is evidence to show that the real strength of these republics lay not so much in their government as in the character of their people. Did not Plato say, “Like man, like state.” “Governments vary as the characters of man vary.” Mention may be made here that many republican states existed in northern and central India till the fifth century of the present era.
Monarchs were bound by Dharma to be no more than trustees of the individual’s and the State’s freedom and legitimate interests
It is normal to Indian nature to regard as inviolable the right of the individual as well as of the collectivity – the smaller the collectivity, we may repeat, the stronger and more progressive it is likely to be – to grow into the fullness of its being by following its own particular line of development. There can indeed be no higher conception of democracy. And its modern advocates have yet to realise that the democratic ideal enshrines, however inchoately, the truth of a higher perfection which man, both in his individual and collective life, is destined to attain. That is why there is so much insistence on the necessity of absolute freedom for man, so that he may be able to express all that is latent in him, and the best and highest that is latent in him is his eternal and immaculate divinity whose uncurbed manifestation is the goal towards which he is moving. Freedom and democracy are but its necessary aids.
It is a remarkable fact – singular and unique in the history of the world – that the wide prevalence of popular freedom in ancient India hardly found itself in conflict with the system of monarchy that existed, the reason being that the latter served only to augment the collective well-being of the people. The king was the servant of the people, the upholder of the Dharma, and his power was so hedged in as to prevent the growth of any personal despotism or any tendency towards absolutism or autocracy. Manu prescribes and justifies dethronement and even capital punishment for a king if he defies the law and develops into a tyrant. The land, says the same authority, belongs to the people, to those who cultivate it, the king being only its custodian. Not any temporal power but the ideal rule of living, the Dharma, enunciated, fostered and enjoined upon the kings by the Rishis, was the real and greater sovereign. The king as a person, his ancestry, his family traditions, his personal and family prestige were matters of no moment from the point of view of this Dharma. His chief function was to see to the proper observance of the Dharma by the people, and to prevent crimes, serious disorders and breaches of the peace. He himself was bound to obey the Dharma as also the rigorous rules and restrictions it imposed on his personal life and conduct and on the province, powers and duties and even on the prerogatives of his regal authority and office. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas – these and other yet unexplored sources of much historical information – abound in such examples of dutiful kings and equally dutiful subjects. Besides, the monarch almost always reflected the dignity of a stable civilisation and represented a free living people. He was the symbol of the country’s greatness and glory even as the representative assembly of his kingdom or empire mirrored the mind and will of his people.
The theory of the divinity of the king does not seem to have found much favour in the Vedic age. Several mantras, however, composed during the period of the Smritis, speak of the entry of deities into the king’s person at the time of his coronation. In certain sacrifices kings were compared with gods, and declared as the visible symbol of Prajapati, the Lord of creation. But, barring a very few of the law-makers, almost all of them were against placing the king above the Law. To them the majesty of the Law was higher than the majesty of the king. The view of Gregory the Great that even bad kings are divine was not only foreign but repugnant to Indian thinking. We know Manu’s dictum on this point. Shukracharya calls a vicious and oppressive king not divine (Divya) but demoniac (Rakshomsa). The king Vena who claimed exemption from punishment on the plea of his divinity was killed by the sages who did not care to examine the validity of his stand. The Mahabharata declares that if a king is unable to protect his subjects and administer his kingdom righteously, the subjects should kill him like a mad dog.
It is therefore clear that the idea of the divinity of the king was not accepted in India in its literal sense. It stood for virtues, great, noble and godly, which the king must possess that he might be fit to discharge the sacred and onerous duties of his high office. That is why so much stress was laid in ancient India on the training of the princes, for which the best teachers of the time were appointed. The Smrities assert that the king is the trustee of the peoples’ interests, the State an instrument through which he is to guard those interests and provide scope for their full satisfaction, and that his supreme function lies in dealing out even-handed justice to all. Arthasastra says that ‘the ruler is created by Brahma as servant of the people.’ In order, therefore, to be equal to this delicate, difficult and sacred task, the king must have in him divine qualities. This is the true meaning of the divinity that was attached to royalty in ancient India.