As a remarkable patriot, thinker, and visionary, Sri Aurobindo’s contributions to India are priceless. Unlike other patriots and leaders of his generation, it was in spite of his upbringing that Sri Aurobindo turned out to be such a devoted son to Mother India.
Enamored by the British, Aurobindo’s father Dr. Krishna Dhun Ghose did everything within his power to make his children grow up to be Englishmen. His dream was for his children to enter the Indian Civil Service and so the entire family moved to England in 1879, when Aurobindo was just 7.
Aurobindo returned to India in 1893 and joined the state service in Baroda. Soon he got involved with politics and began writing and lecturing extensively. Though he spent most of his impressionable years in the UK, he was never branded an outsider nor was his patriotism ever questioned. In the spirit of sanatana dharma, which is always open to new knowledge, he was embraced by the people. His intrinsic worth as a thinker and nationalist was far more valued than his academic qualifications.
By the time he was active in political circles he had not only attained proficiency in many languages but also had widely read on a variety of subjects. His political writings are worth their weight in gold and must be read by every serious student of the Indian Independence Movement. His spiritual writings on the other hand are far too esoteric and can appeal to only a few.
In this article, I have picked some of Aurobindo’s writings on the Islamic faith, on the unity between Hindus and Muslims, and on the future of Mahomedans in our country. These have been taken from a selection of Sri Aurobindo’s writings, talks, and speeches titled India’s Rebirth (1997) jointly published by Institut de Recherches Évolutives, Paris and Mira Aditi, Mysore. The writings I have chosen are spread over a thirty-year period – from 1909 to 1939 – that was filled with political activity. Aurobindo gave a new direction to prevalent patriotic fervor through his bold and unique expressions. He spoke of the dangers of fanaticism as well as that of blind ahimsa (non-injury). Unlike many leaders of his time, Aurobindo was openly critical of Gandhi and his bid to destroy India’s kshaatra (spirit of courage). Savant-patriots like Aurobindo ensured that the freedom movement didn’t end up becoming intellectually bankrupt.
On 23rd October 1929, Aurobindo wrote a letter to one of his Muslim disciples who began making violent demands and justified them on religious grounds. This letter gives us an overview of Aurobindo’s views on Islam:
You say that you ask only for the Truth and yet you speak like a narrow and ignorant fanatic who refuses to believe in anything but the religion in which he was born. All fanaticism is false, because it is a contradiction of the very nature of God and of Truth. Truth cannot be shut up in a single book, Bible or Veda or Koran, or in a single religion. The Divine Being is eternal and universal and infinite and cannot be the sole property of the Mussulmans or of the Semitic religions only, – those that happened to be in a line from the Bible and to have Jewish or Arabian prophets for their founders. Hindus and Confucians and Taoists and all others have as much right to enter into relation with God and find the Truth in their own way. All religions have some truth in them, but none has the whole truth; all are created in time and finally decline and perish. Mahomed himself never pretended that the Koran was the last message of God and there would be no other. God and Truth outlast these religions and manifest themselves anew in whatever way or form the Divine Wisdom chooses. You cannot shut up God in the limitations of your own narrow brain or dictate to the Divine Power and Consciousness how or where or through whom it shall manifest; you cannot put up your puny barriers against the divine Omnipotence. These again are simple truths which are now being recognised all over the world; only the childish in mind or those who vegetate in some formula of the past deny them.
You have insisted on my writing and asked for the Truth and I have answered. But if you want to be a Mussulman, no one prevents you. If the Truth I bring is too great for you to understand or to bear, you are free to go and live in a half-truth or in your own ignorance. I am not here to convert anyone; I do not preach to the world to come to me and I call no one. I am here to establish the divine life and the divine consciousness in those who of themselves feel the call to come to me and cleave to it and in no others.
(On Himself. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Volume 26. p. 483)
Even as early as in 1909, Aurobindo made it clear that appeasement of Muslims wouldn’t lead to long-lasting peace. On the other hand, he was not one for shunning Islam. He writes (emphasis mine):
We do not fear Mahomedan opposition; so long as it is the honest Swadeshi article and not manufactured in Shillong or Simla [British centers], we welcome it as a sign of life and aspiration. We do not shun, we desire the awakening of Islam in India even if its first crude efforts are misdirected against ourselves; for all strength, all energy, all action is grist to the mill of the nation-builder. In that faith we are ready, when the time comes for us to meet in the political field, to exchange with the Musulman, just as he chooses, the firm clasp of the brother or the resolute grip of the wrestler…
Of one thing we may be certain, that Hindu-Mahomedan unity cannot be effected by political adjustments or Congress flatteries. It must be sought deeper down, in the heart and in the mind, for where the causes of disunion are, there the remedies must be sought. We shall do well in trying to solve the problem to remember that misunderstanding is the most fruitful cause of our differences, that love compels love and that strength conciliates the strong. We must strive to remove the causes of misunderstanding by a better mutual knowledge and sympathy; we must extend the unfaltering love of the patriot to our Musulman brother, remembering always that in him too Narayana dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom; but we must cease to approach him falsely or flatter out of a selfish weakness and cowardice. We believe this to be the only practical way of dealing with the difficulty. As a political question the Hindu-Mahomedan problem does not interest us at all, as a national problem it is of supreme importance.
(19 June 1909)
Even a hundred years later, we find ourselves stuck with the politics of flattery without a serious quest towards finding a solution. Politicians like Gandhi and Nehru took these to ridiculous extremes, thus resulting in the Partition and subsequently in a constant Hindu-Muslim tension across India.
The appeasement politics fueled by Gandhi and the Congress was based on a simple idea that Hindus should accommodate and Muslims should be made to feel comfortable at any cost. And like the ancient Arabian tale of the camel and the tent, the more the Mahomedans were appeased, the more they demanded. Aurobindo’s statements on this matter are prophetic, owing to his astute observation and his refusal to flinch from saying things as he saw them:
Every action for instance which may be objectionable to a number of Mahomedans is now liable to be forbidden because it is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, and one is dimly beginning to wonder whether the day may not come when worship in Hindu temples may be forbidden on that valid ground.
(4 September 1909)
For a moment, let us consider this from another point of view: Has all this minority appeasement resulted in their upliftment? Has it significantly changed their lives and brought them into the mainstream? Has it improved relations between the Mahomedans and people of other faiths? The answer to all three questions is an overwhelming no. Aurobindo makes a pertinent observation in this matter:
The attempt to placate the Mahomedans was a false diplomacy. Instead of trying to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity directly, if the Hindus had devoted themselves to national work, the Mahomedans would have gradually come of themselves… This attempt to patch up a unity has given too much importance to the Muslims and it has been the root of all these troubles.
(1 August 1926)
The fundamental argument of Aurobindo was simply that Hindus cannot eternally compromise in order to accommodate the Mahomedans, who will continue to ask for more. It has to be a two-way compromise. And this was the reason that Aurobindo opposed the Lucknow Pact of 1916, which was a dangerous compromise, undertaken merely to appease the Mahomedans. What began with the Partition of Bengal (1905) and worsened with the Morley-Minto Reforms (1909) reached its nadir with the Lucknow Pact and the subsequent support of the Congress to the Khilafat agitation. Aurobindo wrote in 1934:
As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Moslems who would not at all be conciliated by such policy. What has created the Hindu-Moslem split was not Swadeshi, but the acceptance of the communal principle by the Congress (here Tilak made his great blunder), and the further attempt by the Khilafat movement to conciliate them and bring them in on wrong lines. The recognition of that communal principle at Lucknow made them permanently a separate political entity in India which ought never to have happened; the Khilafat affair made that separate political entity an organised separate political power.
The Hindu compromise continued and in 1939, people began objecting to Vande Mataram because it portrayed India as a mother and as a goddess. (Even today, only a part of the song is rendered in all official renditions.) In this context, Aurobindo had a conversation with a disciple:
Disciple: There are some people who object to “Vande Mataram” as a national song. And some Congressmen support the removal of some parts of the song.
Aurobindo: In that case the Hindus should give up their culture.
Disciple: The argument is that the song speaks of Hindu gods, like Durga, and that is offensive to the Muslims.
Aurobindo: But it is not a religious song: it is a national song and the Durga spoken of is India as the Mother. Why should not the Muslims accept it? It is an image used in poetry. In the Indian conception of nationality, the Hindu view would naturally be there. If it cannot find a place there, the Hindus may as well be asked to give up their culture. The Hindus don’t object to “Allah-ho-Akbar”…
Why should not the Hindu worship his god? Otherwise, the Hindus must either accept Mohammedanism or the European culture or become atheists…
I told C. R. Das [in 1923] that this Hindu-Muslim question must be solved before the Britishers go, otherwise there was a danger of civil war. He also agreed and wanted to solve it…
Instead of doing what was necessary the Congress is trying to flirt with Jinnah, and Jinnah simply thinks that he has to obstinately stick to his terms to get them. The more they try, the more Jinnah becomes intransigent.
(30 December 1939)
If any of our politicians post-Independence had read this exchange and understood its import, perhaps our country wouldn’t have such acrimony and discord between Hindus and Muslims.
To be concluded in the next part.
Thanks to Shashi Kiran for his astute observations and suggestions on improving this essay.