Sri Aurobindo is best known as a philosopher and yogi, as one of the early leaders of the Indian nationalist movement who also wrote extensively on politics, society, and culture.
His contributions to these fields, although original and often ahead of their time, have not received the attention they deserve. One reason for this is that they are scattered through six or seven volumes of his complete works. Another is their apparent datedness.
But the most important of Aurobindo's writings on these subjects are as interesting now as when they were written, for they deal with matters of perennial concern-such as on cultural identity, and the place of spirituality in society.
Peter Heehs-well-known historian and biographer of Aurobindo-overcomes the first problem (of scattered sources) by selecting representative passages from the entire body of Aurobindo's works. He deals with the second problem (of Aurobindo's seeming datedness) by providing historical background, and by relating Aurobindo's social cultural, and political ideas to those of contemporary theorists.
Heehs's anthology confronts common misunderstandings by scholars and politicians who reduce Aurobindo's complex thinking to a collection of clichés. Additionally, given the manner in which the leading figures of Hinduism have been appropriated by Hindu fundamentalists, this anthology is a vital corrective. It provides a nuanced and contextualized understanding of one of India's most influential thinkers.
About the Author
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was educated at St. Paul's School, London, and King's College. Cambridge. Returning to India in 1893, he began an exhaustive study of the Indian literary and spiritual traditions. In 1906 he joined the national movement and was the first to insist that its goal must be independence. In 1910 he retired to Pondicherry to devote himself to the practice of yoga. The ashram he founded in 1926 still attracts thousands of people interested in his spiritual philosophy and yoga.
Peter Heehs is the author or editor of seven books, including Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography an Indian Religions: The Spiritual Traditions of South Asia. His articles have appeared in History and Theory, Modern Asian Studies, History Today, and other professional journals and magazines. He lives in Pondicherry.
Sri Aurobindo is best known as a spiritual philosopher and yogi, the author of such works as The Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine, and the founder of the ashram in Pondicherry that bears his name. But before the retired to Pondicherry to devote himself to yoga he was famous throughout India as a political writer and activist. The editorials he published in the newspapers Bande Mataram (1906-1908) the same period are among the most remarkable expressions of anti-colonial nationalism to come out of the Indian freedom struggle. Many of these pieces are still worth reading, because they deal not only with transient political issues but also with some of the perennial problems of human society. Aurobindo had begun to think and write about such problems a decade and a half before he joined the freedom struggle, and he returned to them after his retirement from politics. In a series of works written between 1915 and 1920, he developed a theory of social evolution that is of a piece with his spiritual philosophy yet grounded on empirical observation. These later works, together with some of the earlier pieces, constitute a significant contribution to political, social and cultural theory.
Today, Aurobindo's writings on these subjects are not given the attention they deserve either by scholars or the general public. There are several reasons for this neglect. The first and most obvious is that many of his writings are out of date. The bulk of his journalism dealt with day-to-day issues that are now of interest only to historians. The later books and essays were concerned with more enduring themes, but they were framed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century assumptions. Readers at the beginning of the twenty-first century who with to apply Aurobindo's insights to contemporary problems have to extract them from their historical contexts, as valuable old paintings have sometimes to be removed from outworn frames. To do this properly, a certain amount of historical knowledge is necessary. This is conspicuously lacking in many of those who put themselves forward as Aurobindo's champions and interpreters. It has always been easy for party spokesmen, political commentators, and people with social and religious agendas to mine his writings for quotations that can be applied, without context, to their current programmes. Aurobindo saw this coming as early as 1920. When a politician took a passage from one of his writings and published it as an endorsement, Aurobindo asked an associate to inform the public that he had "authorized nobody whether publicly or privately to be the spokesman of my opinions". In regard to the quotation, he added: "The recorded opinions o a public man are public property and I do not disclaim what I have written; but the responsibility for its application to the present situation rests entirely with the signatories to the manifesto." Since then, Aurobindo's "recorded opinions" have graced other manifestos, as well as countless articles and books. The authors have rarely made it clear that the passages quoted were written by Aurobindo in a particular historical context, which differed in many respects from the situation to which they were being applied.
A second difficulty in making use of Aurobindo's writings today is that the political, social and intellectual worlds have changed enormously since he wrote. It should be obvious, for example, that what he has little direct application to today's political order. This is not to say that Aurobindo's political and social writings have no contemporary value. His overviews of European and Indian history are still of considerable interest, and the lines of future development he extrapolated from his observations are as worthy of study now as when he wrote them. But such study, if it is to have any relevance, must take into consideration late-twentieth-century developments in the social sciences. Words central to Aurobindo's thinking, such as "culture" and "evolution", are used today in senses that differ greatly from those that were current a hundred years ago. Other terms that have become common currency in social theory - "social construction", "essentialism", "Orientalism", and many others-were either not coined when Aurobindo was writing, or are used today in ways that would never have occurred to him. Still others, such as "cultural nationalism" and "nationalism" itself, have acquired negative connotations that they did not have in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Aurobindo's English, though admittedly belonging to a past era, is comprehensible to any intelligent modern reader, but his concept and some of his terminology have to be "translated" into twenty-first-century idiom before his writings can find their full utility.
The third reason that Aurobindo's writings in political and social theory have been neglected is that some of those who champion his work in these and other fields have done so with an uncritical enthusiasm that might be appropriate for religious propaganda but not for academic or public debate. People who follow Aurobindo's yoga may find it is appropriate to regard his books as unquestionable sources of absolute truth. But such an attitude cannot be expected of others. Aurobindo himself would not have expected it. When writing on political and social theory, he based himself on political and social data, and followed the methodologies of political science and sociology as he understood them. To treat his political science and sociology as he understood them. To treat his books on these subjects as quasi-scriptural revelations is to condemn them to irrelevancy.
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