Sri Aurobindo on Indian Culture and India’s role in the world

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

When circumstances so required, it was none other than Sri Aurobindo himself who came forward to give a clear picture of the foundations of Indian culture, its spiritual separation and ideals, the shapes and forms of its political and social systems, its findings in science, creativity in art, poetry and aesthetics. The dark spots, positive imperfections and heavy shortcomings he also referred to, but then which civilisation has been without its unfulfilled parts, its negative aspects, its deep stains, lacunae and blind alleys, he asked.

“From an Indian point of view, the present team of political leadership has to address not only economic issues but also re-assert and reinforce its civilisational ethos and cultural ideals inspired by its eternal ancient spirit. In the history of mankind, no other country has been so aggressively assaulted, occupied physically, its culture and religion attacked, and politically subjugated for centuries. International discourses are in deep ignorance of inner Indian concerns, which only people of Indian origin are knowledgeable in…”

Sri Aurobindo replied in a most unbiased manner to criticism of Indian civilisation by western scholars, and to western cultural assaults attempting to break down the forms of Eastern culture in general. Sri Aurobindo was an outstanding intellectual, a thinker, mystic and poet, well-versed in Sanskrit, Bengali, Greek and Latin and had a high command of the English language. In his reply to English critics, he underlined that at the same time of cultural attacks there was ‘a large, subtle and silent appropriation of much that is valuable in the East for the enrichment of Occidental culture.’

In his book entitled ‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’, he warns that to bring forward the glories of our past and scatter them on Europe and America will be a liberality that will enrich and strengthen India’s cultural assailants, and that may serve to give a misleading and useless self-confidence if it is not made a force of will for a greater creation. It is important for India not only to confront the attack with new and more powerful formations to pus it back, but even, where that is possible and helpful to Indians, to carry the war into the assailant’s country. Wherever there is a need for assimilation of external influences, it should be a strong creative assimilation that answers to India’s needs and responds to the Indian spirit, and not a stark appropriation.

an Indian ideal of the future

There have been positive movements in some directions while others have created an unintelligent mixture, crude and undigested borrowings attempting to create a rationalised and Westernised India, a brown ape of Europe. An awakening to the situation instills the ability to think and create in certain fields, which avoids imitation, haphazard borrowing of western methods, without assimilation. A mastery and helpful assimilation of new stuff into an eternal body has always been in the past a peculiar power of the genius of India. Assimilation is one thing, but there are alleys internal to the culture to be fully explored to be creative, founts of native power from which more vital and fresher streams of power of life can be drawn, more stimulating to the nature of the Indian way of being, and more packed with creative suggestions.

A forward look from the past and present towards an Indian ideal of the future, not a foreign one, is the way ahead. Changes, he wrote, must be cast in the spirit and mould of India, not in any other – America, Europe or Russia.

Sri Aurobindo’s writings are highly enlightening and relevant a hundred years later. A fierce opponent of British rule, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. A revelation he had while in jail changed the course of his life. He escaped from prison and fled to Pondicherry which was under French administration, and there he set up an ashram where he wrote profusely and took the battle of liberation and awakening to higher levels.

Cultural assaults as well as attacks on territorial integrity continued and took different forms since Sri Aurobindo’s time. International standards to settle culture clashes and territorial disputes were mainly devised from a western perspective and from western history in the wake of calamities that have torn away countries, mostly of European makings and Russia’s ideological threats in the mid-20th century. India, the ancient possessor of the truth of the spirit, has shown its determination to face challenges on its own terms for the past years. Static defense, Sri Aurobindo wrote, is of no value, because it is inconsistent with the truth of things and doomed to failure. While the Shakti of the world is moving, the Shakti of India, too, must move.

A vision of future possibilities

It was of utmost urgency for India to be led by leaders who are imbued with the ancient spirit of India, with a clear view of its past glories, its dynamism, also its flaws, an inspiration which shapes a vision of its future possibilities. The more so following the pressure of dominant European ideas and motives and the swift transformation of the world, which always threatens to leave little time for the growth of sound thought and spiritual reflection. In every calamitous period of wars that defined the 20th century up to present times, seekers of new truth from other continents, from Europe, America, and even from the hot spots of today’s conflicts, have turned to India for guidance, and many, despite living abroad, have found their spiritual home in India. This phenomenon stands little chance of reversion and places Indian culture and ideals in a stronger position.

As of today, Europe and the West still resort to the force of mechanical institutions to establish a form of unity by the accommodation of conflicting interests. Such an attempt is not founded at all or is founded on sand. Why? Because the West does not possess the spirit of unity. The European mind, Sri Aurobindo says, gives the first place to the principle of growth by struggle to arrive at some kind of consensus — a consensus which is hardly more than an organization for growth by competition, aggression and further battle. An organisation that is precarious at its base and in its centre because it is founded on half-truths that deteriorate into whole falsehoods.

In such circumstances, peace is constantly breaking into a fresh strife of principles, ideas, interests, races and classes. Indian culture strove to find its base in a unity and reached out again toward some greater oneness; it achieved peace and stability, but was imperfect because it lost its force of aggression and weakened its power of assimilation and expansion. So, when powerful and aggressive forces broke in from outside, Hindu society was left with a mere permission to live, with restricted assertion of its ancient spirit.

All this has undergone change in past decades, and more so under the present government, which from a western point of view may look like an antithesis of their own brand of secular leaders, a definition of secularism which fits western leaders and which does not take into account the role of political leaders in upholding their civilisational ethos, but act merely as technicians to boost GDP and prop up the economy.

From an Indian point of view, the present team of political leadership has to address not only economic issues but also re-assert and reinforce its civilisational ethos and cultural ideals inspired by its eternal ancient spirit. In the history of mankind, no other country has been so aggressively assaulted, occupied physically, its culture and religion attacked, and politically subjugated for centuries. International discourses are in deep ignorance of inner Indian concerns, which only people of Indian origin are knowledgeable in.

So, as of today, one leading motive of India remains its endeavour to achieve a greater outward expression of spiritual and psychological oneness in a larger statement of Indian civilisation, but with a diversity that is alien to the mechanical method of Europe: a unity with the rest of mankind, in which India maintains its spiritual and outer independence, a unity of mankind which the West sees only in idea, but cannot achieve because it does not possess the spirit.

The onus is on the sons and daughters of Indian civilisation not to opt for a rationalized and westernized India, and to adjust to changes with the ancient spirit which makes spirituality a prime motive, not a superficial emotional influence that gives a spiritual colouring to the predominantly vital vigour of the Teuton and the intellectual clarity and sensuous refinement of the Latins, as depicted by Sri Aurobindo. Of all ancient civilisations, Indian civilisation is still standing on its feet and will have to deploy all the potential of its Shakti in various fields to keep its spirit unique and the rich mass and diversity of its thousand lines of inner experience a heritage that still India alone can preserve in its intricate truth and dynamic order.

Swadharma, the law of ‘our nature’, Sri Aurobindo says, ‘the aim of Nature in us’ contains essential idea-forces which cannot be thrown aside and a permanent spirit to which the people must cling to and will remain permanent hereafter. These idea-forces are essential not only for India, but for humanity as a whole.

We wish India, the Indian diaspora, people of Indian origin and lovers of Indian culture a happy celebration of National Day on August 15th.


* Published in print edition on 14 August 2020

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