Marx's philosophy of a supposed harmonised social system garnered many followers, though in time people still connected with the Hindu ethos realised its severe limitations.
Four years after leaving college I was ready to join the Communist Party of India when it declared war on the newly born Republic of India in February 1948. I conveyed my decision to my friend Ram Swarup, whom I had met after leaving college and who was to exercise a decisive influence on my intellectual evolution. He wrote back immediately: “You are too intelligent not to become a Communist. But you are also too intelligent to remain one for long.”
This was a prophecy which came true. it was only a year and a few months later that I renounced Marxism as an inadequate philosophy, realised that the Communist Party of India was a fifth column for the advancement of Russian imperialism in India, and denounced the Soviet Union under Stalin as a vast slave empire. Before I tell the story of that transformation, I have to look back and point towards the planting of some other seeds in mind. These seeds were to sprout into life as soon as the spell of Marxism was broken and grow into an abiding faith in Sanatana Dharma.
The first college teacher to leave a lasting impression on my intellectual growth was our professor of Sanskrit. This great language and literature was not my main subject in B.A.Hons. I was only supposed to qualify in it in a supplementary examination and then forget all about it. lie prescribed course was the first four chapters of Dasakumaracharit of Dandin and a few cantos of the Kiratarjuniyam of Bharavi, with some grammar and translation work thrown in as an aid. In the normal course, therefore, a casual student like me should not have attracted any notice from our Sanskrit professor, nor he from me. But we were fated, as it were, to fascinate one another. The outcome of this meeting was not only my lasting love for Sanskrit language and literature but several other decisive departures in my way of looking at Hindu philosophy and history.
This professor had spent several years in Europe, to earn his Ph.D. He had also taught at Santiniketan for some time. But these were only his outer accomplishments which several other professors also had in their own fields. What mattered most to me about him was his vast erudition in the wide fields of traditional Indian philosophy, Indian history, and Indian languages and literature. Every single line of prose and poetry in the prescribed texts was for him an occasion to launch on a learned discourse in comparative linguistics, metaphysics, history, and what not. His contempt for modern Indologists was always as obvious as his admiration for everything which was traditionally Hindu.
He startled me one day when he poured undisguised contempt on Sir S. Radhakrishnan who, in his opinion, had tried to fit Hindu philosophy into the straitjacket of a conceptual framework borrowed from Western philosophy. I had not studied any Hindu philosophy so far. Nor had I read any writings of Radhakrishnan. But this was a famous name in which every Indian was supposed to take legitimate pride. The professor clinched the argument by stating that a man venturing to write on Hindu philosophy without a knowledge of Sanskrit was like a man writing a cheque without a bank balance. I was to discover later on that the professor was more than right in his indictment.
Another day he came down very heavily on the theory of an Aryan invasion of India in the second millennium BC. I had never suspected that this theory was a deliberate plant by Western Indologists, to prove that India was a caravanserai which no racial, religious or linguistic group in India could claim as its original home. Our teachers of history in school and college had always started their first lessons in Indian history with the advent of the wild Aryans who destroyed the cities in the Indus Valley, who drove the Dravidians towards the South, and whose warlike ballads were preserved in the Rigveda. The professor dismissed all this history as a cock and bull story for which there was no evidence, literary or archaeological.
It was the strong influence of our Sanskrit professor which made me stand up in protest when our history teacher traced the Bhakti Movement in medieval India to the influence of Islam. It was revolting to hear him quoting Dr. Tarachand approvingly while he taught that Shankaracharya was drawn towards monotheism due to his association with some Arab merchants who had settled down in Kerala towards the end of seventh century AD. The history teacher challenged me to write a rival thesis disproving what Tarachand had propounded. I wrote a rather long paper on the Bhakti Movement which took me an hour to read before a full class. The history teacher praised me for arguing my case very ably from my own premises. But he was adamant that a well-known authority like Tarachand could not be wrong.
I came very close to our Sanskrit professor who also cherished me as his pet student. He organised a Sanskrit Parishad of which he made me the first secretary. He could speak Sanskrit extempore and very fluently. He encouraged me also to write and read out my speeches in Sanskrit. It was quite an effort in which he helped me. I succeeded and surprised many people who had never known me as a Sanskritist. I also had the opportunity to listen to some famous scholars who came to address two succeeding annual sessions of our Sanskrit Parishad.
But he strongly disapproved of my association with Harijan work. In fact, he was not prepared to believe that I could be engaged in such a disgracefulactivity when one of my classmates who wanted to praise me before him lodged the first information report. He called me to his presence and put the question straight to me. I told him the truth. There was no reproach in his eyes or words. He tried gentle persuasion with some instances of depravity which he thought was hereditarily ingrained in a certain class of people. I had too much respect for him to enter into an argument. But I did tell him that I did not agree.
This great scholar and teacher fell seriously ill before I started moving towards Marxism. And he died before I left college. I wonder if I would have wandered into Marxism and atheism had I continued under his influence. I also wonder if we two would have ever agreed, one way or the other, about the problem of untouchability. But as I look back I am filled with gratitude for the seeds of pride in Hindu culture and history which he was the first to plant in my mind.
It was perhaps due to the strong undercurrents of influence exercised by what I learned at the feet of this Sanskrit savant that I was never able to part company, fully and finally, with the ideals and idols of my earlier days. Marxism made me renounce my faith in God as the Creator and Controller of our Cosmos. But my reverence for Sri Garibdas and the saints and sufis to whom he had introduced me through his great Granth Saheb remained intact. I gave up Gandhism but not my veneration for Mahatma Gandhi. His spiritual strength and moral stature continued to cast its spell on me as ever before. And both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda made me bow my head in homage whenever their holy names were mentioned.
This split between my intellectual perceptions and emotional dispositions was also due to my incomplete acceptance of Marxism. I had accepted Marx’s Historical Materialism as an adequate explanation of the processes of human history. I had accepted his Labour Theory of Value as the source of all capital accumulated by human society. I could see clearly that the State was an instrument of class oppression. I could detect naked class interests hiding behind the cloak of social institutions, law codes and conventional morals. And I also came to believe in the inevitability as well as the desirability of the proletarian revolution on an international scale. But I found it very difficult, almost impossible, to accept Dialectical Materialism as a valid view of the world process.
I had read quite a bit of modern Western philosophy to know that while Materialism was deterministic, there was an obvious element of teleology in Dialectics. Materialism and Dialectics could not, therefore, be reconciled. I had referred the matter to my professor of political science whom I thought a very good Marxist. But he confessed that philosophy had never been his domain and that he had never studied Dialectical Materialism. Next, I had taken the problem to a professor of philosophy in our college. He confirmed my suspicion that Materialism and Dialectics were logically irreconcilable. I left it at that at that time. But the ideological gap continued to rankle in my mind.
Meanwhile, I had added two more idols to the panorama of saints and sages in my private pantheon Socrates and Sri Aurobindo. They made a great difference to my intellectual turn out in the long run.
Plato who made me fall at the feet of Socrates, figuratively speaking, was a prescribed reading for me as a student of Greek political thought. But I did not stop at the Republic, the Laws, and the Statesman, which three Dialogues would have covered my course. I read practically the whole of Plato in order to know more and more about the personality of Socrates whom someone had so aptly described as the first satyagrahi (adherent to truth) known to the Western world. He finally rose to his full stature in the three Dialogues centred round the last days of his life Apology, Crito, Phaedo. His wisdom, as well as the nobility of his character, left me spellbound. This fascination for the personality of Socrates led me, later on, to translate and publish these three Dialogues in Hindi under the title Satyakama Socrates.
My encounter with Sri Aurobindo, on the other hand, came about almost inadvertently. I had heard his name from my father who extolled him as a great Yogi. My father literally believed that Sri Aurobindo could levitate as much as five feet above ground. But I had never read anything written by Sri Aurobindo nor was he on my list of masters whom I aspired to read some day. The intellectual elite in the college talked a lot about Spengler, Bergson, Marcel Proust, Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley, but I had never heard the name of Sri Aurobindo in this exclusive club.
Strange as it may sound, I was led to Sri Aurobindo by my interest in Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychoanalysis. Psychology was not my subject in college. But my philosopher friend had aroused my interest in Western psychology as he had done in Western philosophy. I studied all the six schools of psychology which were known in those days. But I was impressed only by the depth psychology of Freud. Our university library had almost all his published works till that time, including his voluminous case histories. And there were not many readers to take out these tomes. I could, therefore, study them at leisure. I wonder if I derived any intellectual benefit from them. What I remember is that I started seeing all sorts of conflicts and complexes in my mental make up. It was something like what happens to an immature student of Homeopathy who starts suspecting in his own self the symptoms of all sorts of diseases described in the Materia Medica.
My morbid fears made me approach one of our professors who was a well-known psychoanalyst. He gave me a few sessions of free association, the therapeutic method prescribed by Freud. I do not remember that they did me any good. The professor must have soon found out that I was a victim of auto-suggestion. But I was surely surprised when one day he suddenly asked me if I believed in God. When I replied in the negative, he further asked me if I believed in a higher consciousness. This I could not deny without repudiating Sri Garibdas and the saints and sufis who always sang of a consciousness full of nur and zahur.
I did not know that the professor was a devotee of Sri Aurobindo. He was not in a hurry to reveal himself to me all at the same time. What he told me to start with was that though he had put all his good faith in psychoanalysis for quite a number of years, he had now come to the conclusion that yoga was a more effective method of dealing with mental ailments.
I knew next to nothing about yoga. I was only vaguely aware of the name of Patanjali as an exponent of the yoga system of Indian philosophy. But that was all. I had not studied any Indian philosophy so far nor was I inclined to do so. The professor recommended that I need not bother about the philosophy of yoga. All I needed was to make a start with some simple expositions of practical yoga by Sri Aurobindo. He also promised to lend me some books if I could not find them on my own.
My search for the writings of Sri Aurobindo led me to my old favourite library in Chandni Chowk. The college and university libraries had not so far acquired any of his works, perhaps because they had been published only recently. The library in Chandni Chowk, however, had quite a few of Sri Aurobindo’s works. One of these was The Life Divine. I immediately went for it, forgetting for the time being what the professor had recommended. And that was an intellectual experience which I will never forget. I still remember how I tried to read this great work by the moonlight on the roof when I found one night that my lantern had run out of kerosene. What impressed me most at that time was Sri Aurobindo’s full and very fair exposition of the philosophy of materialism in all its metaphysical and scientific ramifications as well as life meanings. Here was a mind which was as razor sharp as that of Marx but which at the same time covered a larger territory.
As I look back, I can see that the greater part of Sri Aurobindo’s vast vision as expounded in The Life Divine was beyond my grasp at that time. The heights to which he rose as a witness of the world process and the drama of human destiny left me literally gasping for breath. But this much was clear at the very start that his concept of man had dimensions which were radically different from those I had come across in any other system of thought. He was not dealing with man as a producer and consumer of material goods. He was not dealing with man as a member of a social or political or economic organisation. He was not dealing with man as a rational animal or a moral aspirant or an aesthete. Man was all these according to him. But man was also much more at the same time. He was a soul effulgent with an inherent divinity which alone could sustain and give meaning to the outer manifestations of the human personality.
And the promise made by Sri Aurobindo regarding the ultimate destiny of the human race was far more stupendous than that held out by Marx. The international proletarian revolution anticipated and advocated by Marx was to lead to a stage at which mankind could engage itself in rational, moral and aesthetic endeavours free from the distortions brought about by class interests. But the supramentalisation of the mental, vital and physical nature of’ man envisaged and recommended by Sri Aurobindo would enable mankind to bridge the gulf between human life as a terrestrial turmoil and human life as a spiritual self-existence.
The conceptual language I am using now to draw the distinction between Marx and Sri Aurobindo was not accessible to me in those days. Most of this clarity is wisdom by hindsight. But howsoever vague and inchoate my vision might have been at that time, I did feel that Sri Aurobindo was talking about fundamentally different dimensions of the universe and human life. The gulf between my mundane interests and the grand aspirations dictated by Sri Aurobindo’s vision was very wide and I could hardly muster the care or the courage to cross over. But in the inner recesses of my mind, I did become curious about the nature of the universe, about man’s place in it, and about a meaningful goal of human life.
My problem now was to reconcile Sri Aurobindo with Marx, in that order. Marx, of course, came first. He was the exponent par excellence of the social scene with which I was primarily preoccupied as well as extremely dissatisfied. Sri Aurobindo had to be accommodated somewhere, somehow, in the system of Marx. The reconciliation was achieved by me several years later to my own great satisfaction. I came to the conclusion that while Marx stood for a harmonised social system, Sri Aurobindo held the key to a harmonised human personality. The ridiculousness of this reconciliation did not dawn on me even when a well-known exponent of Sri Aurobindo to whom I presented it as an intellectual feat dismissed it with a benevolent smile. I dismissed the exponent as wise by half because while he had studied Sri Aurobindo, he had most probably not studied Marx, at least not as well as I had done!