- A Perspective on Modern Polity in the Light of Sri Aurobindo
- A Perspective on Modern Polity in the Light of Sri Aurobindo (2)
- India’S Experience Of The Rational Age, The Present Condition And The Future Work (3)
- A Perspective on Modern Polity in the Light of Sri Aurobindo (4)
1. The Asiatic Concept Of Democracy – The Concept Of Democracy That India Must Rediscover For Herself
“…the foundations of Hinduism are truth and manhood, esha dharmah sanatanah. Hinduism is no sect or dogmatic creed, no bundle of formulas, no set of social rules, but a mighty, eternal and universal truth. It has learned the secret of preparing man’s soul for the divine consummation of identity with the infinite existence of God; rules of life and formulas of belief are only sacred and useful when they help that great preparation. And the first rule of life is that man must live the highest life of which he is capable, overcoming selfishness, overcoming fear, overcoming the temptation to palter with truth in order to earn earthly favours. The first formula of belief is satyannasti paro dharmah there is no higher law of conduct than truth.” (CWSA 7: 928)
“Asia is not Europe and never will be Europe. The political ideals of the West are not the mainspring of the political movements in the East, and those who do not realise this great truth, are mistaken; for they suppose that the history of Europe is a sure and certain guide to India in her political development. A great deal of the political history of Europe will be repeated in Asia, no doubt; democracy has travelled from the East to the West in the shape of Christianity, and after a long struggle with the feudal instincts of the Germanic races has returned to Asia transformed and in a new body. But when Asia takes back democracy into herself she will first transmute it in her own temperament and make it once more Asiatic. Christianity was an assertion of human equality in the spirit, a great assertion of the unity of the divine spirit in man, which did not seek to overthrow the established systems of government and society but to inform them with the spirit of human brotherhood and unity. It was greatly hampered in this work by the fact that the European races were in a state of transition from the old Aryan civilization of Greece and Rome to one less advanced and enlightened. The German nations were wedded to a military civilization which was wholly inconsistent with the ideals of Christianity, and the new religion in their hands became a thing quite unrecognizable to the Asiatic mind which had engendered it. When Mahomedanism appeared, Christianity vanished out of Asia, because it had lost its meaning. Mahomed tried to re-establish the Asiatic gospel of human equality in the spirit. All men are equal in Islam, whatever their social position or political power, nor is any man debarred from the full development of his manhood by his birth or low original station in life. All men are brothers in Islam and the bond of religious unity overrides all other divisions and differences. But Islam also was limited and imperfect, because it confined the ideal of brotherhood and equality to the limits of a single creed, and was farther deflected from its true path by the rude and undeveloped races which it drew into its embrace. Another revelation of the old truth is needed.” (CWSA 7: 929-30)
We know the terrible result of the above mentioned failure of Islam – the bloody story of a millennium of Islam in India. Islam, apparently due to some historical accidents, but really due to the action of Adversary (Satanic) Powers, utterly failed to widen itself and live in the spirit and genius of Prophet Mohammed who had, singlehandedly united the disparate and utterly divided people of Arabia. The intensity inherited from the Prophet remained but only to serve, increasingly, the ends of the Adversaries. During the past few decades Islam’s intolerance of other faiths – even other sects or subsects within its sects – seems to have reached a fever pitch and beginning this century, Islamic terrorism has become one of the most serious perils faced by humanity at this juncture where, even otherwise, its future survival is in question. Thus there is no hope on this front either from Christianity or from Islam. The only remaining potential source for the revelation of the old truth is India.
“India from ancient times had received the gospel of Vedanta which sought to establish the divine unity of man in spirit; but in order to secure an ordered society in which she could develop her spiritual insight and perfect her civilization, she had invented the system of caste which by corruptions and departures from caste ideals came to be an obstacle to the fulfilment in society of the Vedantic ideal. From the time of Buddha to that of the saints of Maharashtra every great religious awakening has sought to restore the ancient meaning of Hinduism and reduce caste to its original subordinate importance as a social convenience, to exorcise the spirit of caste pride and restore that of brotherhood and the eternal principles of love and justice in society. But the feudal spirit had taken possession of India and the feudal spirit is wedded to inequality and the pride of caste.
When the feudal system was broken in Europe by the rise of the middle class, the ideals of Christianity began to emerge once more to light, but by this time the Christian Church had itself become feudalized, and the curious spectacle presents itself of Christian ideals struggling to establish themselves by the destruction of the very institution which had been created to preserve Christianity. When the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were declared at the time of the French Revolution and mankind demanded that society should recognise them as the foundation of its structure, they were associated with a fierce revolt against the relics of feudalism and against the travesty of the Christian religion which had become an integral part of that feudalism. This was the weakness of European democracy and the source of its failure. It took as its motive the rights of man and not the dharma of humanity; it appealed to the selfishness of the lower classes against the pride of the upper; it made hatred and internecine war the permanent allies of Christian ideals and wrought an inextricable confusion which is the modern malady of Europe. It was in vain that the genius of Mazzini rediscovered the heart of Christianity and sought to remodel European ideas; the French Revolution had become the starting point of European democracy and coloured the European mind. Now that democracy has returned to Asia, its cradle and home, it will be purged of its foreign elements and restored to its original purity. The movements of the nineteenth century in India were European movements, they were coloured with the hues of the West. Instead of seeking for strength in the spirit, they adopted the machinery and motives of Europe, the appeal to the rights of humanity or the equality of social status and an impossible dead level which Nature has always refused to allow. Mingled with these false gospels was a strain of hatred and bitterness, which showed itself in the condemnation of Brahminical priest craft, the hostility to Hinduism and the ignorant breaking away from the hallowed traditions of the past. What was true and eternal in that past was likened to what was false or transitory, and the nation was in danger of losing its soul by an insensate surrender to the aberrations of European materialism. Not in this spirit was India intended to receive the mighty opportunity which the impact of Europe gave to her. When the danger was greatest, a number of great spirits were sent to stem the tide flowing in from the West and recall her to her mission; for, if she had gone astray the world would have gone astray with her.
Her mission is to point back humanity to the true source of human liberty, human equality, human brotherhood. When man is free in spirit, all other freedom is at his command; for the Free is the Lord who cannot be bound. When he is liberated from delusion, he perceives the divine equality of the world which fulfils itself through love and justice, and this perception transfuses itself into the law of government and society. When he has perceived this divine equality, he is brother to the whole world, and in whatever position he is placed he serves all men as his brothers by the law of love, by the law of justice. When this perception becomes the basis of religion, of philosophy, of social speculation and political aspiration, then will liberty, equality and fraternity take their place in the structure of society and the Satya Yuga return. This is the Asiatic reading of democracy which India must rediscover for herself before she can give it to the world. It is the dharma of every man to be free in soul, bound to service not by compulsion but by love; to be equal in spirit, apportioned his place in society by his capacity to serve society, not by the interested selfishness of others; to be in harmonious relations with his brother men, linked to them by mutual love and service, not by shackles of servitude, or the relations of the exploiter and the exploited, the eater and the eaten. It has been said that democracy is based on the rights of man; it has been replied that it should rather take its stand on the duties of man; but both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognise, 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.” (CWSA 7: 930-32)
Not only the other countries in Asia, but even free India is far from moving significantly in the direction pointed by Sri Aurobindo more than hundred years ago when few people had faith even in the freedom of India from the clutches of the British in the foreseeable future. Speaking on how nothing could ever be done without faith he wrote, “All that we do and attempt proceeds from faith, and if we are deficient in faith nothing can be accomplished. When we are deficient in faith our work begins to flag and failure is frequent; but if we have faith things are done for us. No great work has ever been done without this essential courage. Misled by egoism, we believe that we are working, that the results of what we do are our creation, and when anything has to be done we ask ourselves whether we have the strength, the means, the requisite qualities, but in reality all work is done by the will of God and when faith in Him is the mainspring of our actions, success is inevitable. Sometimes we wish a thing very intensely and our wish is accomplished. The wish was in fact a prayer, and all sincere prayer receives its answer. It need not be consciously addressed to God, because prayer is not a form of words but an aspiration. If we aspire, we pray. But the aspiration must be absolutely unselfish, not alloyed by the thought of petty advantages or lower aims if it is to succeed. When we mingle self with our aspirations, we weaken to that extent the strength of the prayer and the success is proportionately less.” (CWSA 7: 937)
“Whoever believes in God, rises above his lower self; for God is the true self of the Universe and of everything within the Universe. When we rely upon our lower self, we are left to that lower self, and succeed or fail according to our strength of body or intellect under the law of our past life and actions. There is one law for the lower self and another for the higher. The lower self is in bondage to its past; the higher is lord of the past, the present and the future. So the will of the lower self is born of ahankara and limited by ahankara, but the will of the higher self is beyond ahankara and cannot be limited by it. It is omnipotent. But so long as it works through the body, it works under the laws of time, space and causality, and we have to wait for its fulfilment till the time is ready, the environment prepared, the immediate causes brought about. The will once at work infallibly brings about the necessary conditions; all we have to do is to allow it to work.” (CWSA 7: 937-38)
In our later discussion it will be shown how what Sri Aurobindo perceived more than hundred years ago is just the thing that needs to happen to India for it to be able to get out of the seemingly impossible difficulties faced by her in moving towards national regeneration and resurgence.
2. The Early Indian Polity And Its Natural Growth Out Of Life
“The principle of popular rule is the possession of the reins of government by the mass of the people, but by the possession is not intended necessarily the actual exercise of administration. When the people are able to approve or to disapprove of any action of the Government with the certainty that such approval or disapproval will be absolutely effective, the spirit of democracy is present even if the body is not evolved. India in her ancient polity possessed this spirit of democracy. Like all Aryan nations she started with the three great divisions of the body politic, King, Lords and Commons, which have been the sources of the various forms of government evolved by the modern nations. In the period of the Mahabharata we find that the King is merely the head of the race, possessed of executive power but with no right to legislate and even in the exercise of his executive functions unable to transgress by a hair’s breadth the laws which are the sum of the customs of the race. Even within this limited scope he cannot act in any important matter without consulting the chief men of the race who are usually the elders and warriors; often he is a cipher, a dignified President, an ornamental feature of the polity which is in the hands of the nobles. His position is that of first among equals, not that of an absolute prince or supreme ruler. We find this conception of kingship continued till the present day in the Rajput States; at Udaipur, for instance, no alienation of land can take place without the signature of all the nobles; although the Maharaja is the head of the State, the sacred descendant of the Sun, his power is a delegated authority. The rule of the King is hereditary, but only so long as he is approved of by the people. A tyrannical king can be resisted, an unfit heir can be put aside on the representation of the Commons. This idea of kingship is the old Aryan idea, it is limited monarchy and not the type of despotism which is called by the Western writers Oriental, though it existed for centuries in Europe and has never been universal in Asia.” (CWSA 7: 943-44)
“The growth of large States in India was fatal to the continuance of the democratic element in the constitution. The idea of representation had not yet been developed, and without the principle of representation democracy is impossible in a large State. The Greeks were obliged to part with their cherished liberty as soon as large States began to enter into the Hellenic world; the Romans were obliged to change their august and cherished institutions for the most absolute form of monarchy as soon as they had become a great Empire; and democracy disappeared from the world until the slow development of the principle of representation enabled the spirit of democracy to find a new body in which it could be reborn. The contact with Greek and Persian absolutism seems to have developed in India the idea of the divinity of Kinghood which had always been a part of the Aryan system; but while the Aryan King was divine because he was the incarnate life of the race, the new idea saw a divinity in the person of the King as an individual, – a conception which favoured the growth of absolutism. The monarchy of Chandragupta and Asoka seems to have been of the new type, copied perhaps from the Hellenistic empires, in which the nobles and the commons have disappeared and a single individual rules with absolute power through the instrumentality of officials. The Hindu King, however, never became a despot like the Caesars, he never grasped the power of legislation but remained the executor of laws over which he had no control nor could he ignore the opinion of the people. When most absolute, he has existed only to secure the order and welfare of society, and has never enjoyed immunity from resistance or the right to disregard the representations of his subjects. The pure absolutist type of monarchy entered India with the Mahomedans who had taken it from Europe and Persia and it has never been accepted in its purity by the Hindu temperament.” (CWSA 7: 945-46)
“Sri Aurobindo: The old Indian system grew out of life, it had room for everything and every interest. There were monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. Every interest was represented in the government, while the Western system grew out of the mind. In Europe they are led by reason and want to make everything cut and dry without any chance of freedom or variation. If it is democracy, then democracy only and no room for anything else. They cannot be plastic. India is now trying to imitate the West. Parliamentary government is not suited to India. But we always take up what the West has thrown off.” (Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 2007: 584-85)
“Disciple: It seems political ideas and ideals are not worth fighting for. Thousands fought for democracy, and now they are in a hurry to give it up! Nothing seems to be permanent in the political field.
Sri Aurobindo: Quite so. All human values are half values – they are relative. They have no permanence or durability about them.
Disciple: Perhaps if men became more mentalised, they would understand things better.
Sri Aurobindo: By being mentalised? No! The difficulty is that men don’t follow the principles of life.
Disciple: How is that?
Sri Aurobindo: Life compromises between different elements, but mind, when acting on its own, does not compromise. Mind takes up one thing and makes it absolute, considers it as apart from and opposed to all other things.
Hegel boasted that in Europe they had succeeded in separating reason from life, and you see their philosophy – it has nothing to do with life; it is all mental gymnastics, it does not form part of life. While in India, philosophy has always been a part of life; it has an aim to realise everything.
So also in the political philosophy of Europe you find that if they accept democracy, it is only democracy – all the rest is opposed to it. If monarchy, then it is only monarchy. That is what happened in Greece. They fought for democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, and in the end they were conquered by the Romans.
Disciple: Then what is the truth in all these attempts at political organisation?
Sri Aurobindo: If you want to arrive at something true and lasting, you have to look at life and learn from it, that is to say, you must learn the nature of the oppositions and contradictions and then reconcile them.
As regards government, life shows that there is a truth in monarchy – whether hereditary or elective, there is a man at the top who governs. Life also shows that there is a truth in aristocracy, whether it is of strong men, or rich men, or intellectuals. The current fiction is that it is the majority that rules, but the fact is that it is the minority, the aristocracy. Life also shows that the rule of the king or the aristocracy should be with the consent, silent or vocal, of the people.
In ancient India, they recognised the truth of these things. That is why India has lasted through millenniums – and China also.” (Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 2007: 675-76)
 Unfortunately it continues to still dominate the Indian political scenario without any prospect of the country getting out of its vicious clutches in the near future in sight.
 This does not seem to have happened to any significant extent anywhere in Asia and, certainly, not at all in India – the spiritual heart of the Orient.