Musings on Nation and Nationalism in Sri Aurobindo’s Light

Being committed to one's own nation is a stepping stone to greater realisations of finding the true self.

Musings on Nation and Nationalism in Sri Aurobindo’s Light

In the last few decades, India has seen many self-styled intellectuals and their unthinking protégés and admirers repeat that the time for the ‘idea’ of nation and nationalism is over. This idea is repeated in some of our university campuses, TV studios, and also social media. For some time now it has almost become fashionable among some sections of the educated, socially upward-mobile elite, especially in India, to think and speak of oneself as a “world” citizen. It has also become popular among these people to look a bit skeptically, even cynically, at the idea of nationalism or love for one’s nation. Such an attitude is considered parochial, narrow, chauvinistic and even conservative. Some of these ‘global’ citizens even go to the extent of using the word “zealot” in all its negative connotations to speak of those who consider themselves ‘nationalists.’
To challenge, oppose or criticise something we must first understand it. So let us focus on the key idea being challenged here — the idea of a nation. What is a nation? And what does it mean to love one’s nation?
In the following excerpt from Sri Aurobindo we find a perfect answer to this question:

“What is a nation? We have studied in the schools of the West and learned to ape the thoughts and language of the West forgetting our own deeper ideas and truer speech, and to the West the nation is the country, so much land containing so many millions of men who speak one speech and live one political life owing allegiance to a single governing power of its own choosing. When the European wishes to feel a living emotion for his country, he personifies the land he lives in, tries to feel that a heart beats in the brute earth and worships a vague abstraction of his own intellect.
“The Indian idea of nationality ought to be truer and deeper. The philosophy of our forefathers looked through the gross body of things and discovered a subtle body within, looked through that and found yet another more deeply hidden, and within the third body discovered the Source of life and form, seated forever, unchanging and imperishable. What is true of the individual object, is true also of the general and universal. What is true of the man, is true also of the nation.
The country, the land is only the outward body of the nation, its annamaya kosh, or gross physical body; the mass of people, the life of millions who occupy and vivify the body of the nation with their presence, is the pranamaya kosh, the life-body of the nation. These two are the gross body, the physical manifestation of the Mother. Within the gross body is a subtler body, the thoughts, the literature, the philosophy, the mental and emotional activities, the sum of hopes, pleasures, aspirations, fulfilments, the civilisation and culture, which make up the sukshma sharir of the nation. This is as much a part of the Mother’s life as the outward existence which is visible to the physical eyes.
“This subtle life of the nation again springs from a deeper existence in the causal body of the nation, the peculiar temperament which it has developed out of its ages of experience and which makes it distinct from others. These three are the bodies of the Mother, but within them all is the Source of her life, immortal and unchanging, of which every nation is merely one manifestation, the universal Narayan, One in the Many of whom we are all the children.
“When, therefore, we speak of a nation, we mean the separate life of the millions who people the country, but we mean also a separate culture and civilisation, a peculiar national temperament which has become too deeply rooted to be altered and in all these we discover a manifestation of God in national life which is living, sacred and adorable. It is this which we speak of as the Mother. The millions are born and die; we who are here today, will not be here tomorrow, but the Mother has been living for thousands of years and will live for yet more thousands when we have passed away.” (Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo [CWSA], Vol. 7, pp. 1115-1116).

Reading this passage a few times will result in a newer and deeper understanding of the idea of a nation when seen from an Indian viewpoint. But our sincere effort should be that the deeper truth in these words somehow gets imbibed in us so that any time we find ourselves speaking of or writing about our country, our India, it is in the light of this truth that our words find their meaning. It is important that we invoke and recall the essence of this Indian view of the truth of a nation whenever we think of and contemplate on Mother India’s past, present and future. That, I believe, would be the beginning of really loving our nation.
It is only a true and deep love for our nation which will eventually help us really understand why this idea of a nation, this idea of loving one’s nation is not at all in any contradiction with being concerned about the larger world beyond the nation. It is not enough to use the fashionable terminology of ‘world citizen’, ‘global outlook’, etc. It is highly necessary, almost imperative that we first realise the psychological and deeper truth about the ‘nation’ itself. After all, if we don’t know our home, how will we know the world?
In his primary work on political philosophy titled, The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo makes it very clear: “At the present stage of human progress the nation is the living collective unit of humanity” (CWSA, Vol. 25, p. 304). He explains that the unity of nations is possible only when each nation has first realised its intrinsic and essential unity.
But what makes the nation a living collective unity? And why should we care for the nation in this globalising world? The answer to such questions may be found in both the fundamentals of human psychology that have to do with the gradual self-development of the individual, as well as the natural tendency of humanity’s gradual progression from smaller to larger aggregates for their collective life. From family to clan to tribe to nation. Let us hear again from Sri Aurobindo:

“Self-sacrifice involuntary or veiled by forms of selfishness is,… the condition of our existence. It has been a gradual growth in humanity. The first sacrifices are always selfish—they involve the sacrifice of others for one’s own advancement.
“The first step forward is taken by the instinct of animal love in the mother who is ready to sacrifice her life for the young, by the instinct of protection in the male who is ready to sacrifice his life for his mate. The growth of this instinct is the sign of an enlargement in the conception of the self. So long as there is identification of self only with one’s own body and its desires, the state of the jiva is unprogressive and animal.
“It is only when the self enlarges to include the mate and the children that advancement becomes possible. This is the first human state, but the animal lingers in it in the view of the wife and children as chattels and possessions meant for one’s own pleasure, strength, dignity, comfort. The family even so viewed becomes the basis of civilisation, because it makes social life possible.
“But the real development of the god in man does not begin until the family becomes so much dearer than the life of the body that a man is ready to sacrifice himself for it and give up his ease or even his life for its welfare or its protection. To give up one’s ease for the family, that is a state which most men have attained; to give up one’s life for the honour of the wife or the safety of the home is an act of a higher nature of which man is capable in individuals, in classes, but not in the mass.
“Beyond the family comes the community and the next step in the enlargement of the self is when the identification with the self in the body and the self in the family gives way to the identification with the self in the community. To recognise that the community has a larger claim on a man than his family is the first condition of the advance to the social condition. It corresponds to the growth of the tribe out of the patriarchal family and to the perfection of those communal institutions of which our village community was a type.
“Here again, to be always prepared to sacrifice the family interest to the larger interest of the community must be the first condition of communal life and to give one’s life for the safety of the community, the act of divinity which marks the consummation of the enlarging self in the communal idea.
“The next enlargement is to the self in the nation. The evolution of the nation is the growth which is most important now to humanity, because human selfishness, family selfishness, class selfishness having still deep roots in the past must learn to efface themselves in the larger national self in order that the God in humanity may grow.
“There is a yet higher fulfilment for which only a few individuals have shown themselves ready, the enlargement of the self to include all humanity. A step forward has been taken in this direction by the self-immolation of a few to humanitarian ideals, but to sacrifice the interests of the nation to the larger interest of humanity is an act of which humanity in the mass is not yet capable.
“God prepares, but He does not hasten the ripening of the fruit before its season. A time will come when this also will be possible, but the time is not yet. Nor would it be well for humanity if it came before the other and lesser identification were complete; for that would necessitate retrogression in order to secure the step which has been omitted. The advance of humanity is a steady progress and there is no great gain in rushing positions far ahead, while important points in the rear are uncaptured.” (CWSA, Vol 8, pp. 137-139)

As humanity, we have yet to evolve to live in the ideal of ‘One World, One Humanity’. The nation is still the single largest collective aggregate of which an individual is a part. There is something akin to a soul-element in this entity called nation. It is up to the individual to recognise that soul of the nation. And because there is a divinity in nation, there is a need to defend the nation, as aggressively as required, from the mad and violent onslaught of the Asuric forces trying to break the integrity and unity of a nation.
Only from nationalism can we move to internationalism. The truth of a nation as a real living collective unit can’t be denied just as the eternal truth of ONE humanity can’t be denied. But it is also true that only free and united nations can work towards a united world. This is nature’s way.

“In India, we do not recognise the nation as the highest synthesis to which we can rise. There is a higher synthesis, humanity; beyond that there is a still higher synthesis, this living, suffering, aspiring world of creatures, the synthesis of Buddhism; there is a highest of all, the synthesis of God, and that is the Hindu synthesis, the synthesis of Vedanta.” (CWSA, Vol. 8, p, 84)

Indian thought has never considered nationalism as the final spiritual shelter, but it has always said that before human beings are evolved to the level of seeing God in humanity, the nation remains the last real collective unity.
Sadly, most of us humans aren’t anywhere evolved in our consciousness to see God in anyone, not even our immediate family, not even ourselves! To reach the highest ideals of Indian thought we have to do some serious work on ourselves. More to the point, if we can’t love our nation, without any expectation, can we ever love or even care for humanity? From family to clan to tribe to nation to humanity – that is the way evolutionary principle works when it comes to loving and sacrificing for a human aggregate.

“Nationalism is simply the passionate aspiration for the realisation of that Divine Unity in the nation, a unity in which all the component individuals, however various and apparently unequal their functions as political, social or economic factors, are yet really and fundamentally one and equal.” (CWSA, Vol. 7, p. 679).

In some of Sri Aurobindo’s speeches delivered during the years of his leadership of the Indian independence movement, we find more clarity on his vision of a nation.

“A nation is a living entity, full of consciousness; it is not something made up or fabricated. A living nation is always growing; it must grow, it must attain its loftier heights. This may happen after a thousand years or in the next twenty years, but happen it must.” (AnchorCWSA, Vol. 7, p. 812).

Let us meditate on all that depth and truth expressed in just a few words here. What does the idea of a nation as a living entity mean to us? It is not merely an intellectual idea, such as the one made notorious by the over-used or over-abused term “Idea of India.” It is not only an emotional sentiment. But it is a throbbing living force, it is life itself. And Life must grow, must evolve, must live fully to realise its potential. That’s what a nation is. A living, growing, evolving entity, one seeking to realize its inner being, its nation-soul.
These words motivate one to sincere action and flare up one’s aspiration for a better future of this living, conscious entity called our nation. These words stir the deepest and purest feelings of love for the nation, for the people, but steer away from a jingoistic, egoistic fervour that is at the base of virulent ill-will and hatred towards other nations.
In Sri Aurobindo’s vision for the future of the modern nation-state of India, the Indian nation is not a colonial copy but one that is grounded in a deeper and truer vision that is indigenously eternal yet newly evolving, that is native yet inclusive and integrative of all that continues to come from the world outside.
Reflecting a bit on Sri Aurobindo’s idea of the nation and its applicability to the Indian experience provides a fair amount of order and organisation to some of the mental chaos or confusion many present-day Indians carry – often unknowingly – regarding contemporary India’s social and political scene, and their way of viewing their Indian identity as well as cultural and civilizational history.
A large number of Indians today are beginning to recognise how their views of India and her culture, history and civilisational truths, among many other things, have been shaped by their formal educational experience in India, which to this day remains highly colonial and West-centric. They also recognise how a colonial mindset is rooted deep in the Indian state and its bureaucratic machinery, mainstream education system, ways of identifying or connecting with Indian cultural and social institutions, and also in the minds and ways of thinking of several generations. Awareness and acceptance of a partly-colonised, partly-decolonising mental consciousness as part of the experience of most modern-day educated Indians helps one acquire a kind of intellectual calm.
This awareness also helps us recognise some of the wider issues concerning the impact of colonial thinking on the workings of the modern Indian State. There are still laws existing from the British colonial days, and though it is a serious issue it may be still a smaller concern. The bigger concern is that not many in the political machinery are willing to examine the colonial baggage of the present Indian State. One quick example is in the misinterpreted and misapplied concept of secularism, a concept which is not rooted in the Indian civilisational vision and experience.
From education to law, from governance to national security, and in everything in between we still find deep-seated colonial baggage, which India even after 70 years of independence has not been able to throw away. The conflicts between castes, classes, religions, ethnicities often arise out of our faulty and colonised view of who we are as a people, as a civilisation. This ignorance has been fanned by greedy politicians, corrupt leaders of different communities, and successive governments because of selfish and myopic political gains.
The positive news is that there is a growing awareness in some sections of the Indian intellectual class that a lot of political unrest and social conflict in India is the result of our own lack of understanding of how the Indian collective psyche clashes with the European idea of “nation-state.”
The modern idea of nation-state initially grew up in mono-religious, homogenous societies, whereas from ancient times India has always been a highly diverse, heterogeneous society with deep underlying unity of thought but one that is manifested in diverse outside forms. In India, one can still see tremendous diversity from village to village. But the impact of Western-style modernity which by its default nature tries to homogenise things has been quite strong on the Indian collective psyche, especially in the urban and fast-urbanising India.
While this Western idea of the nation-state may have been imposed on India, seers like Sri Aurobindo remind us of the psychological rather than the physical principle as the foundation of nationality. Nationhood, according to him, refers primarily to the notion of psychological unity which, in turn, might be heightened by common collective memories of ancient traditions, past heroes and sufferings, by common geographical habitation and by common interests and values.

“[T]he nation is a persistent psychological unit which Nature has been busy developing throughout the world in the most various forms and educating into physical and political unity. Political unity is not the essential factor; it may not yet be realised and yet the nation persists and moves inevitably towards its realisation; it may be destroyed and yet the nation persists and travails and suffers but refuses to be annihilated. In former times the nation was not always a real and vital unit; the tribe, the clan, the commune, the regional people were the living groups. Those unities which in the attempt at national evolution destroyed these older living groups without arriving at a vital nationhood disappeared once the artificial or political unit was broken. But now the nation stands as the one living group-unit of humanity into which all others must merge or to which they must become subservient. Even old persistent race unities and cultural unities are powerless against it.… The nation in modern times is practically indestructible, unless it dies from within.… All modern attempts to destroy by force or break up a nation are foolish and futile, because they ignore this law of the natural evolution. Empires are still perishable political units; the nation is immortal. And so it will remain until a greater living unit can be found into which the nation idea can merge in obedience to a superior attraction.” (CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 309-310)

As we Indians slowly work to decolonise our minds and the social-political machinery and institutions which deeply impact our collective lives, we must hold on firmly to the ideas of the national “spirit” (and spirit by its nature manifests itself in innumerable forms) and of an inner psychological unity that binds us as a nation. This will also help prevent the Indian nation-state from becoming a dominating, imposing type of monolith that might suffocate or brutally eradicate the rich diversity that exists in various nooks and corners of India.
Reflecting on Sri Aurobindo’s explanation of the psychological unity that is at the core of Indian nation-hood, we must also recognise that beneath this outer and visible diversity lies the deeper inner and invisible unity. It is the inner Oneness that binds the Multiple outers. After all, the same principle applies to who/what we are as an individual – an inner one-self holds together, sustains and unites our multiple outer selves – physical, vital and mental. The same truth holds for the collective being, the nation. Any forced attempt to bring unity from the outside comes with a danger of imposing uniformity. And yet some uniformity in the outer mechanisms, structures, social policies, laws and rules might be necessary for an efficient and effective outer collective life of the society and nation so that the true inner freedom and diversity may prevail. This fine balancing of the inner and outer, the oneness and the multiplicity needs to be brought home in the hearts and minds of all Indians.
A deeper appreciation of the inner significance and truth of the idea of the nation helps us recognise that becoming a nation-state in the modern sense may be an essential step in India’s ongoing march to revive the truths of her ancient civilisation.

“The nation-unit is not formed and does not exist merely for the sake of existing; its purpose is to provide a larger mould of human aggregation in which the race, and not only classes and individuals, may move towards its full human development.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, p. 382)

About Author: Beloo Mehra

Dr. Beloo Mehra has extensive teaching, research and curriculum development experience in higher educational and research institutions in India and USA. She is a student of the educational, social and cultural thought of Sri Aurobindo, and writes on related topics.

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