The next quarter century of Indian independence: a golden period
In my column published a fortnight ago before the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, I argued that India’s renaissance was still incomplete. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in the national capital of New Delhi on August 15 also seemed to suggest this, although he presented it not as an unfinished project but as a golden opportunity.
According to Modi, the next 25 years, when India approaches its centenary celebrations as an independent nation, would be a amrit kaal or ambrosial time. But, he urged his compatriots, for that to happen there must be a united push to make India great again. The logical question would be what are the desiderata [requirements] for such a transformation to take place?
According to the writings of [philosopher] Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), whose 150th birthday India is also celebrating, then the roadmap would call for a complete transformation of India’s national life, nothing less than a ‘new creation’. Writing a hundred years ago in a series of essays entitled “The Renaissance in India”, Sri Aurobindo observed: “In the outward life of the nation we are still in a phase of much uncertainty and confusion, in largely due to political conditions. But the first period of superficial assimilation and aping of European ideas is over and the vehement religion of Indian patriotism has spoken…”.
[A] The unique Indian response must be pushed to its logical climax in the next quarter century in order to fulfill the promise of Indian renaissance.
I believe this is almost as true of India today as it is of Sri Aurobindo’s. As he said, “Indian society is in an even more chaotic phase; the old forms are crumbling while the new is still powerless to be born. Indeed, India has achieved much in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres over the past 75 years, coping with the appalling bloodshed of partition, the death or displacement of millions of people, an exchange of unprecedented populations in the history of the world and a religious crisis. civil war from which we have not yet fully recovered.
Moreover, India has had to face several conflicts and wars on its borders, both with Pakistan and with China. These disputes are not yet fully resolved. Unrest and insurgency within the country’s borders, a nationwide emergency in which constitutional freedoms and civil rights have been suspended, economic challenges, political uncertainty, natural disasters and a pandemic recent and still ongoing global crisis are among the extraordinary tests and trials that the world’s largest democracy and perhaps the most populous state has had to overcome. It is to India’s credit that she acquitted herself honourably, when many others, with less difficult or less daunting tribulations, could have or have already sunk.
In this context, revisiting Sri Aurobindo’s ideas can prove beneficial, even invaluable. Speaking with great enthusiasm about the Indian renaissance in his first articles shortly after his return to India in 1893, Sri Aurobindo describes the immense impact of Western ideas on the Indian mind:
“An ardent and imaginative race, long chained in the chains of the same tradition, had suddenly placed in its hands the key to a new world peopled with the beautiful or profound creations of Art and Knowledge. From this meeting of a foreign Art and a civilization with a different temperament from the temperament which created them, there emerged, as usually emerges from such encounters, an original Art and an original civilization. Originality does not consist in rejecting external influences but in accepting them as a new mold in which our own individuality can flow.
A thaw of the old moral custom
The year of these statements is 1894, when he served the Maharaja of Baroda in various administrative departments, and always signed his name as “Arvind A. Ghosh”. What is striking is the ardour, even the poetic eloquence, with which Sri Aurobindo describes the rebirth in his early writings.
His more thoughtful reflections, to which we will return later, were much more sober, if not skeptical. Although so positive about the revival at first, he was also quick to note that the new social and political ideas that arose were “on a somewhat slavishly English model”. It was “a thaw of the old moral custom” which characterized the first phase of the Indian revival. What happened was that “the calm, docile, pious and devoted Hindu ideal was pushed back with impatient energy, and the Bengali, freed from the iron restraint which had rested like a gel on his blood warm and sensual feelings, happily escaped into the open air. the air… the young Bengali felt his joy, warmth and sensuality vividly.
This is a remarkable assessment, especially because this period was characterized by so many reforms in India’s institutionalized religious mentality and morality. The relaxation of the moral law of which Sri Aurobindo speaks certainly applies to the breaking down of caste and gender barriers, to the creation of a new individuality, to an unprecedented freedom of thought and knowledge. But instead, Hindus became somewhat Christianized and Semiticized, either through direct conversation or through reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj or the Arya Samaj.
Much more was needed before India could find its soul. Religious and social reform liberated the Hindu spirit but also made it imitative and subservient to Western ideas. Sri Aurobindo continues, as we shall see, to show what the issue is. Neither a slavish imitation of foreign models, nor a reaction or a hatred of the modern world, with all its new possibilities. This third and only Indian response must be pushed to its logical climax in the next quarter century in order to fulfill the promise of Indian renaissance.