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Sri Aurobindo and Swaraj - vandebharath

By early 1900, the idea of ‘Swaraj’ as the end purpose of India’s struggle against British dominion was taking foothold in colonial India. I...

Sri Aurobindo

By early 1900, the idea of ‘Swaraj’ as the end purpose of India’s struggle against British dominion was taking foothold in colonial India. In 1906, The Indian National Congress, the ancestor of the current Indian National Congress that has undergone numerous splits, and mutations since Independence in 1947, officially adopted Swaraj as its goal. It was in its Kolkata session in December with Dadabhai Nauroji as its president.

When we talk of Swaraj, we mostly think of Tilak and Gandhi. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Lokmanya (acceptable to the masses), was one of the staunchest proponents of Swaraj. For Tilak, Swaraj was the philosophy of both life and politics. To quote him, “It is a life centered in self and dependent upon self. There is Swaraj in this world as well as in the world hereafter.”
For Gandhi, the Mahatma, political Swaraj was the stepping stone of a much bigger and wider Swaraj. His idea of Swaraj also included economic and social Swaraj. It found an extension in his notion of Gram Swaraj, a conceptualization based on the idea of decentralization of political and economic powers.
Sri Aurobindo was another towering personality of the Indian Independence Movement who was big votary of Swaraj. Writing about Swaraj in Bande Mataram (April 1907) Sri Aurobindo wrote: “We of the new school would not pitch our ideal one inch lower than aboslute Swaraj, self-government as it exists in the United Kingdom.” To strive for anything less than Swaraj, he argued, “would be to insult the greatness of our past and the magnificent possibilities of our future.”
Born on August 15 August 1872, Sri Aurobindo was the third child of Srimati Swarnalata Devi and Krishna Dhan Ghose. Aurobindo received his education in England, cleared the Indian Civil Services qualifying examination in 1890 but deliberately absented himself from the mandatory riding test. Upon his return to India in 1893, he slowly transformed himself first into an Independence Movement revolutionary and then an ascetic Yogi and a Hindu philosopher.
According to Sri Aurobindo, Swaraj was something worth fighting for. He was absolutely clear in his view that the British were not going to leave and handover the reins of power to the natives by way of petitioning. He professed organised resistance over Congress’ idea of petitions. “Congress has not formally abandoned the petitioning policy but it is beginning to fall into discredit and gradual disuse,” he wrote. “It is a vain dream to suppose what other nations have won by struggle and battle, by suffering and tears of blood, we shall be allowed to accomplish easily, without terrible sacrifices, merely by spending the ink of the journalist and petition-framers and the breath of the orator. Petitioning will not bring us one yard nearer to freedom.”
Sri Aurobindo challenged people to be aggressive in their resistance to the British authority. To him battle for Swaraj was not ‘sin’ and aggression against the colonial authority not ‘lowering of morality’. There was no moral dilemma in resisting, even if it meant violence, the foreign rule. He even criticised Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who had written disapprovingly against the Boycott as an ‘act of hate’. “The Boycott is not an act of hate. It is an act of self-defence, or aggression for the sake of self-preservation. To call it an act of hate is to say that a man who is being slowly murdered, is not justified in striking out at his murderer… Hinduism does not demand feeling of holy sweetness towards assailant.” Aggression, he argued, is unjust only when it is unprovoked. Similarly, he justified violence as long as it is not used wantomly for “unrighteous ends.” Swaraj indeed was a righteous end for Sri Aurobindo.
Sri Aurobindo’s idea of Swaraj was a Dharma-based system. He was mindful and appreciative of the Western concepts of freedom, democracy, and equality that has swept through much of the world. He was, however, skeptical of their ‘hues of the West’. He recognized the inherent biases prevalent in these ideas. “There was a strain of hatred and bitterness,” Sri Aurobindo wrote in his 1908 essay in Bande Mataram, “which showed itself in the condemnation of Brahmanical priestcraft, the hostility to Hinduism.” Recent scholarly works, in particular of Vishwa Adluri (The Nay Science: A History of German Indology) and Meenakshi Jain (Sati: Evangelical, Baptist Missionaries and the Changing Colonial Discourse) have reinforced this skepticism.
Sri Aurobindo’s Swaraj is freedom of mind, body, and spirit and he considered it the Dharma of every human being to be truly free. He was aware of the inherent tension of the European rights and duties based democracy. A Dharma-based system, according to him, is devoid of this ‘“artificial antagonism”. “Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognize, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe. Through Dharma the Asiatic evolution fulfils itself: this is her secret.”
Central to Sri Aurobindo’s idea of Swaraj was his notion of ‘National Education’. To him, National Education was the most immediate need of the country. He proposed dismantling of the existing education system. The full potential of Swaraj cannot be reached “by any extension or imitation of the system of the existing universities with its radically false principles, its vicious mechanical methods, its dead-alive routine tradition and its narrow and sighless spirit.” He considered the idea of Swaraj and National Education inseparable from each other. His idea of National Education included the elements of the “inheritance of the past, the widening gains of the present, and the large potential of the future”.
Sri Aurobindo’s Swaraj, many would argue, is still an unfulfilled dream. Many of the cherished systems of modern day society are showing signs of strain. A Dharma-centric notion of Swaraj, can provide an alternative to the concept of democracy.