NO NATIONAL awakening is really vital and enduring which confines itself to a single field. It is when the soul awakens that a nation is really alive, and the life will then manifest itself in all the manifold forms of activity in which man seeks to express the strength and the delight of the expansive spirit within. It is for ananda that the world exists; for joy that the Self puts Himself into the great and serious game of life; and the joy which He sees is the joy of various self-expression. For this reason it is that no two men are alike, no two nations are alike. Each has its own separate nature over and above the common nature of humanity and it is not only the common human impulses and activities but the satisfaction and development of its own separate character and capacities that a nation demands. Denied that satisfaction and development, it perishes. By two tests, therefore, the vitality of a national movement can be judged. If it is imitative, imported, artificial, then, whatever temporary success it may have, the nation is moving towards self-sterilisation and death; even so the nations of ancient Europe perished when they gave up their own individuality as the price of Roman civilisation, Roman peace, Roman prosperity. If, on the other hand, the peculiar individuality of a race stamps itself on the movement in its every part and seizes on every new development as a means of self-expression, then the nation wakes, lives and grows and whatever the revolutions and changes of political, social or intellectual forms and institutions, it is assured of its survival and aggrandisement.
The nineteenth century in India was imitative, self-forgetful, artificial. It aimed at a successful reproduction of Europe in India, forgetting the deep saying of the Gita—“Better the law of one’s own being though it be badly done than an alien dharma well-followed; death in one’s dharma is better, it is a dangerous thing to follow the law of another’s nature.” For death in one’s own dharma brings new birth, success in an alien path means only successful suicide. If we had succeeded in Europeanising ourselves we would have lost for ever our spiritual capacity, our intellectual force, our national elasticity and power of self renovation. That tragedy has been enacted more than once in history, only the worst and most mournful example of all would have been added. Had the whole activity of the country been of the derivative and alien kind, that result would have supervened. But the life-breath of the nation still moved in the religious movements of Bengal and the Punjab, in the political aspirations of Maharashtra and in the literary activity of Bengal. Even here it was an undercurrent, the peculiar temperament and vitality of India struggling for self-preservation under a load of foreign ideas and foreign forms, and it was not till in the struggle between these two elements the balance turned in the favour of the national dharma that the salvation of India was assured. The resistance of the conservative element in Hinduism, tamasic, inert, ignorant, uncreative though it was, saved the country by preventing an even more rapid and thorough disintegration than actually took place and by giving respite and time for the persistent national self to emerge and find itself. It was in religion first that the soul of India awoke and triumphed. There were always indications, always great forerunners, but it was when the flower of the educated youth of Calcutta bowed down at the feet of an illiterate Hindu ascetic, a self-illuminated ecstatic and “mystic” without a single trace or touch of the alien thought or education upon him that the battle was won. The going forth of Vivekananda, marked out by the Master as the heroic soul destined to take the world between his two hands and change it, was the first visible sign to the world that India was awake not only to survive but to conquer. Afterwards when the awakening was complete a section of the nationalist movement turned in imagination to a reconstruction of the recent pre-British past in all its details. This could not be. Inertia, the refusal to expand and alter, is what our philosophy calls tamas, and an excess of tamas tends to disintegration and disappearance. Aggression is necessary for self-preservation and when a force ceases to conquer, it ceases to live—that which remains stationary and stands merely on the defensive, that which retires into and keeps within its own kot or base, as the now defunct Sandhya used graphically to put it, is doomed to defeat, diminution and final elimination from the living things of this world. Hinduism has always been pliable and aggressive; it has thrown itself on the attacking force, carried its positions, plundered its treasures, made its own everything of value it had and ended either in wholly annexing it or driving it out by rendering its further continuation in the country purposeless and therefore impossible. Whenever it has stood on the defensive, it has contracted within narrower limits and shown temporary signs of decay.
Once the soul of the nation was awake in religion, it was only a matter of time and opportunity for it to throw itself on all spiritual and intellectual activities in the national existence and take possession of them. The outburst of anti-European feeling which followed on the Partition gave the required opportunity. Anger, vindictiveness and antipathy are not in themselves laudable feelings, but God uses them for His purposes and brings good out of evil. They drove listlessness and apathy away and replaced them by energy and a powerful emotion; and that energy and emotion were seized upon by the national self and turned to the uses of the future. The anger against Europeans, the vengeful turning upon their commerce and its productions, the antipathy to everything associated with them engendered a powerful stream of tendency turning away from the immediate Anglicised past, and the spirit which had already declared itself in our religious life entered in by this broad doorway into politics, and substituted a positive powerful yearning towards the national past, a still more mighty and dynamic yearning towards a truly national future. The Indian spirit has not yet conquered the whole field of our politics in actuality, but it is there victoriously in sentiment; the rest is a matter of time, and everything which is now happening in politics, is helping to prepare for its true and potent expression. The future is now assured. Religion and politics, the two most effective and vital expressions of the nation’s self having been nationalised, the rest will follow in due course. The needs of our religious and political life are now vital and real forces and it is these needs which will reconstruct our society, recreate and remould our industrial and commercial life and found a new and victorious art, literature, science and philosophy which will be not European but Indian.
The impulse is already working in Bengali art and literature. The need of self-expression for the national spirit in politics suddenly brought back Bengali literature to its essential and eternal self and it was in our recent national songs that this self-realisation came. The lyric and the lyrical spirit, the spirit of simple, direct and poignant expression, of deep, passionate, straightforward emotion, of a frank and exalted enthusiasm, the dominant note of love and Bhakti of a mingled sweetness and strength, the potent intellect dominated by the self-illuminated heart, a mystical exaltation of feeling and spiritual insight expressing itself with a plain concreteness and practicality—this is the soul of Bengal. All our literature, in order to be wholly alive, must start from this base and whatever variations it may indulge in, never lose touch with it. In Bengal, again, the national spirit is seeking to satisfy itself in art and, for the first time since the decline of the Moguls, a new school of national art is developing itself, the school of which Abanindranath Tagore is the founder and master. It is still troubled by the foreign though Asiatic influence from which its master started, and has something of an exotic appearance, but the development and self-emancipation of the national self from this temporary domination can already be watched and followed. There again, it is the spirit of Bengal that expresses itself. The attempt to express in form and limit something of that which is formless and illimitable is the attempt of Indian art. The Greeks, aiming at a smaller and more easily attainable end, achieved a more perfect success. Their instinct for physical form was greater than ours, our instinct for psychic shape and colour was superior. Our future art must solve the problem of expressing the soul in the object, the great Indian aim, while achieving anew the triumphant combination of perfect interpretative form and colour. No Indian has so strong an instinct for form as the Bengali. In addition to the innate Vedantism of all Indian races, he has an all-powerful impulse towards delicacy, grace and strength, and it is these qualities to which the new school of art has instinctively turned in its first inception. Unable to find a perfect model in the scanty relics of old Indian art, it was only natural that it should turn to Japan for help, for delicacy and grace are there triumphant. But Japan has not the secret of expressing the deepest soul in the object, it has not the aim. And the Bengali spirit means more than the union of delicacy, grace and strength; it has the lyrical mystic impulse; it has the passion for clarity and concreteness and as in our literature, so in our art we see these tendencies emerging —an emotion of beauty, a nameless sweetness and spirituality pervading the clear line and form. Here too it is the free spirit of the nation beginning to emancipate itself from the foreign limitations and shackles.
No department of our life can escape this great regenerating and reconstructing force. There is not the slightest doubt that our society will have to undergo a reconstruction which may amount to revolution, but it will not be for Europeanisation as the average reformer blindly hopes, but for a greater and more perfect realisation of the national spirit in society. Not individual selfishness and mutually consuming struggle but love and the binding of individuals into a single inseparable life is the national impulse. It sought to fulfil itself in the past by the bond of blood in the joint family, by the bond of a partial communism in the village system, by the bond of birth and a corporate sense of honour in the caste. It may seek a more perfect and spiritual bond in the future. In commerce also so long as we follow the European spirit and European model, the individual competitive selfishness, the bond of mere interest in the joint-stock company or that worst and most dangerous development of co-operative Capitalism, the giant octopus-like Trust and Syndicate, we shall never succeed in rebuilding a healthy industrial life. It is not these bonds which can weld Indians together. India moves to a deeper and greater life than the world has yet imagined possible and it is when she has found the secret of expressing herself in these various activities that her industrial and social life will become strong and expansive.
Nationalism has been hitherto largely a revolt against the tendency to shape ourselves into the mould of Europe; but it must also be on its guard against any tendency to cling to every detail that has been Indian. That has not been the spirit of Hinduism in the past, there is no reason why it should be so in the future. In all life there are three elements, the fixed and permanent spirit, the developing yet constant soul and the brittle changeable body. The spirit we cannot change, we can only obscure or lose; the soul must not be rashly meddled with, must neither be tortured into a shape alien to it, nor obstructed in its free expansion; and the body must be used as a means, not over-cherished as a thing valuable for its own sake. We will sacrifice no ancient form to an unreasoning love of change, we will keep none which the national spirit desires to replace by one that is a still better and truer expression of the undying soul of the nation.
Sri Aurobindo (Karmayogin, 26 June 1909)