Ecstatic Archaisms of Aurobindo Ghose – Prasanta Chakravarty


In Reflections on Revolutionary Violence Aditya Nigam makes some nuanced points about the nature of Maoist violence and by contrast, comments on the bedrock character of democracy itself. Can we trace the sublime cult of blood and gore further down, to the founding principles of Forward Bloc, for instance? Or espy it in the millennial longings of a few Gita wielding swadeshis, for that matter? One may begin to see a pattern.

In my course of living in the Southern part of India for the past three years, I have made a few jaunts to the immaculately serene town of Puducherry. The first thing that you notice about the place is that it has, as it were, eluded the many enchantments of the till-yesterday euphoric India. The tapering alleyways of the old town traipsing happily, the bazaars a throwback, the seaside esplanade almost sporting an eighties air with its bare and rough cleanliness. And cyclists still rule. It is only through a gradual acclimatization with the ethos of the town that you realize that much of the civil lines side is civil in a most unusual manner, even as a sublime monastic order erupts forth and grabs you by the lapel. Aurobindo Ghose brooks little dissent.

After a couple of dry forays, I was able to cajole my way through the archives of the ashram. I had the good fortune of befriending Peter Heehs, who has almost single-handedly revived and re-familiarized Ghose’s many extant writings to the English-speaking world. He has since been the very epitome of bounty. The others in the inner core were friendly in a standoffish manner, as if underwriting the fact that mere academic pretension would not suffice to unlock the secrets of an edifice that Ghose and Mirra Alfassa so meticulously had built and the succeeding generations keep on nurturing. The joys of the order, the beauty of a certain transcendental discipline has to be experienced. It has to be felt and dissipated, not communicated. Leela Gandhi’s note on mongrelization of subjectivity and self-exile was amply present. Sadly, her utopian exhortation of fin-de-siecle divine friendship reflects little democratic give and take, not this day at least.


“If hatred is demoralizing, it is also stimulating,” writes Aurobindo Ghose in one of his early essay titled On Nationalism after returning to India from England in 1893. This pithy, striking statement possibly sums up the moral basis of violence as a stimulus among the swadeshi revolutionaries. In order to get rid of the torpor and inertia that one associates with the guna of tamas, political hatred must be brought into the fore as a necessary form of vitalist rajas. It is a deeply awe-inspiring trope in the revolutionary armory that justifies an actual, physical, political action. Aurobindo Ghose was not exempt from joyously celebrating such a moment.

On the other hand, the same man also clearly eschews such vitalist tendencies while giving shape to his political thought. In The Human Cycle, for instance, Aurobindo considers Nietzsche and Bergson’s critique of the Cartesian rational subject founded on the ideas of will-to live and intuition as inadequate, since it builds up on “…crude vitalistic notions of blood, race, life-room…” It is a futurist spiritual anarchism that interests Ghose, not the grossness of gore and slime.

A popular way to account for such a disjunction is to highlight Aurobindo’s one-year stint in the prison (particularly the time spent in solitary confinement) and the dramatic trial between May 1908- May 1909 and mark that experience as the transformative catalyst to the spiritual turn. Besides opting for easy pyschologization, such explanations routinely help strengthen the charismatic myth around the revolutionary as a selfless ascetic. Binoy Sarkar, a deeply philosophic revolutionary close to Aurobindo says “No sooner does Aurobindo gets implicated in the Alipore Conspiracy Case in 1908, he becomes an instant political winner. Immediately people begin relating everything since 1905 with Aurobindo’s name. Even Bipin Pal’s considerable reputation drowned in this din. The secret philosophy to Aurobindo’s fame is the bomb. Without the bomb, he would merely remain a selfless nationalist savant—would never be worshipped as a renowned Indian hero. And in that case, I doubt whether people would acclaim his philosophy as much as they do today.” (Binoy Sarkar er Boithoke, translation mine)

Aurobindo himself writes about his introspective moments in the prison: readings of the Gita and Upanishads, practicing yoga, hearing and feeling Vivekananda and seeing Krishna in his meditation and even levitating. It could be that going through intense physical pain and discomfort, for the middle-class revolutionary, prison also becomes a site for controlling and denying his physical, animal desires, leading to a glorification of austere practices and speculative introspection. Besides, there is also an urge to read the nation symbolically as a vast prison-house. That would mitigate the pain of the actual confinement by seeing the prison as an honest place to be. In Tales of Prison Life, Aurobindo traverses further: “This state of imprisonment is the perennial condition of man,” he remarks, but goes on to highlight that freedom for human race can be achieved through “Restraint, self-torture, indifference, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Asceticism, Vedanta, Buddhism, Advaita, the doctrine of Maya, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Gita, the paths of knowledge, Devotion, and Action—the paths are many, the goal is the same. The aim is always—victory over the body, getting rid of the domination of the physical, the freedom of the inner life.” It is worth noting that, as befits a chiliast, Ghose never denies action. Indeed, a political Vedantist, much like the godly Puritan, detests a fugitive and cloistered virtue. Hence, it is not surprising when Ghose says “ Thanks to my experience of these twelve months I have been able to return to the world of action with tenfold hope, with a fixed notion about Indian superiority…”


What is at the source of such a conflict between immanent and transcendent anarchism, between a joyous celebration of hostility and a quest for surpassing tranquility?
It is quite clear that Aurobindo not only helped organize secret societies in Bengal but also around 1902, established contacts with extremists in Maharashtra. He was more interested, it appears, for a grand revolutionary moment than piecemeal acts of terror. It was a question of strategy for him rather than tactics. In a retrospective talk much later, for instance, he remarks: “My idea was an open armed revolution in the whole of India. What they did at that time was very childish, e.g. beating magistrates and so on. Later it turned into terrorism and dacoities etc. which were not at all my idea or intention.” (Evening Talks). Ghose, however, never objected to his brother and other associates involved in everyday terrorist activities. In this connection, Heehs illuminatingly finds Ghose’s “…laissez-faire attitude towards the development of terrorism…” to be related to something deeper in his personality.

One entry point might be his brother Barin’s remark that “Aurobindo himself was not yet free from strong and passionate vital urges; he was himself attached violently to his mission of India’s political deliverance brought about in this way…” It is quite obvious that during the first decade of the twentieth century Aurobindo is deeply invested in actively resisting the foreign yoke in an organized fashion. He refers time and again to self-development through “…rajasakti, organized political strength, commanding, and whenever necessary compelling general allegiance and obedience” (On Nationalism). The ideas of political will formation is deeply organicist in a physical sense at this stage in his writings.

Ghose was expectedly hostile to the economistic aspects in Marx, but may have agreed with the first of the Theses on Feuerbach had he had access to it at that point of his life. There is a pattern in the kind of influences that the revolutionary terrorists suffered during this time. Among the foreign influences both historical and philosophical ones stand out. The secret societies are modeled on the Carbonari and Mazzini’s Young Italy Society. Indeed the Risorgimento and Irish Home Rule prove to be important social models for tackling the British actively in India. But philosophically, social Darwinism, Bergsonian vitalism, Nietzsche’s will-to-power and eternal return, Russian nihilism and varieties of anarchism prove to be remarkably influential, even if sometimes the ideas do not fully trickle down to individual nationalists.

The working class in much of Southern Europe after the conflict between Marx and Bakunin followed the latter’s dictum of spontaneity and direct action as fundamental to political praxis. In France especially, the ideas of Reclus, Malatesta and Kropotkin led to anarchist syndicalism. A key figure in this context is Henri Bergson. The radicals often transformed his concepts of duration, memory, intuition and that of élan vital, the unanalyzable vital impulse, the hidden psychic flow, into a power of the irrational supposedly strong enough to destabilize positions of authority.

Absolute knowledge for Bergson can come through an intuitive grasp of things and can only be expressed through images and evocative symbols. At the heart of Bergson’s philosophy is a project to master matter through a notion of duration or mind that is squeezed into a contracted point. At that point of time-space contraction (the point of absolute perfection of the Platonic One-Whole), all the levels of expansion (détente) and contraction coexist in a single Time and form a totality. It is only through intuition that one can recover form and matter at such a juncture.

The other component in this monist world-view is the notion of élan vital whereby matter and duration gets differentiated through internal explosive force and branches themselves out as life force. Looked from the other side, this élan vital or life force, in its very differentiation, separates into two movements, one of relaxation that descends into matter and the other of tension that ascends into duration. This is what evolution actually strives for: actualization of creation through differentiation. In our times, Gilles Deleuze explains it beautifully as “…actualization, differentiation, are a genuine creation. The Whole must create the divergent lines according to which it is actualized and the dissimilar means that it utilizes on each line.” (Bergsonism)


It is then no surprise to see that during his early revolutionary days, Aurobindo is precisely trying to imagine the political in such sensuous but highly idealized terms.
The idea of spontaneous violence, for instance, is rife in his early pieces. At times, Ghose is purely apocalyptic. In an article written for Bande Mataram on March 5, 1908, titled Swaraj and the Coming Anarchy, he is deeply anticipatory and certain of the second coming of Vishnu as anarchic force: “Anarchy will come. This peaceful and inert nation is going to be rudely awakened from a century of passivity and flung into a world-shaking turmoil out of which it will come transformed, strengthened and purified.”

In Bourgeois and the Samurai another unpublished article during his lifetime, Aurobindo contrasts the ‘outworn and effete’ bourgeois class in India with the Japanese prototype of the Samurai, which is characterized according to Ghose, by the faculties of self-sacrifice, courage and high aspiration. Once again the chiliastic call made for the rise of the saints is evocative and exact: “…a call for men who will dare to do impossibilities, the men of extremes, the men of faith, the prophets, the martyrs, the crusaders, the …rebel, the desperate adventurers and reckless doers, the initiators of revolutions. It is the rebirth in India of the Kshatriya, the Samurai.” (On Nationalism) There is deep vital energy that runs through such early pieces, frothing with frenzy and wrath against all forms of moderation. The language itself is verbose and excessive. This excess gets transformed into a moment of violence through a vatic serialization of valorous heroes from India’s pre-colonial past. The whole gamut of the ascetic and resistant prototypes from the Hindu mythological imagination is brought into the picture, caring little for their sometimes diametrically opposed ethical positions in the collective consciousness—Harishchandra, Buddha, Shiva and Karna are placed alongside Duryodhana, who in turn is shares stage with Sita and Savitri. In what can only be designated as a riot of high idealism, the renunciating ascetic is married to the resistant and rajasic Kshatriya hero.

Actually, this move of hitching the everyday cults with high monist philosophy is a distinctive maneuver in extremist literature. A typical instance is the fusion of the sakta imagery with the tenets of advaita. In practice, sensuous dualism was deemed compatible with Advaita, working finally towards a unified oneness of the atman/brahman. Quite a few scholars have argued that Neo-Vedanta movement in the nineteenth-century is less indebted to Sankara and more to indigenous tantric traditions. Sometimes, the uninvolved Brahman of Sankara’s system is replaced by a more truly monistic metaphysics in which Brahman is an active and evolutionary spirit or force of which all things and beings are manifestations.

It is in this context that the devotional invocation of the cult of mother goddess (Kali or Annapurna), otherwise an accessible figure within the idiomatic realm of popular consciousness, could be transformed into a wrathful icon symbolizing power and effortlessly blended with the monist philosophy of advaita. The paradigmatic pamphlet of Aurobindo in this respect is of course Bhawani Mandir, written shortly before August 1905. The idea of a temple to Bhawani, the goddess and an order of political sannyasins was that of Ghose’s brother Barindra Kumar. Though the temple was never constructed, the pamphlet proved to be of a considerable influence on the revolutionary movement.

The Bergsonian rajasik moment comes early through the enunciation of concept of the Infinite Energy, which turns the wheels of the eternal revolution. In fact, Bhawani is the other name of this Infinite Energy. She can be broken down into two components: could be either conceptualized in such abstract idioms as love, knowledge, renunciation or pity. This is the temporal dimension to élan vital, differentiating eventually into eternity. The other is its decent into matter, to the level of the pietistic and accessible mother—to Durga, Kali, Radha and Lakshmi.

This branching out of the quanta of energy, “ …the tremendous, swift and inexorable forces, gigantic figures of energy, terrible sweeping columns of force…” can be reconciled into two to kinds of shaktis: the “…Mlechchha Shaktis clouded in their strength, black or blood –crimson with Tamas or Rajas, others are Arya Shaktis, bathed in a pure flame of renunciation and utter self-sacrifice” (On Nationalism). But eventually all these lead to the ancient Mother, who is singular and perfectly poised to rejuvenate the nation into greatness.

But this Bhawani Bharati, the shakti that we also call India, is inactive as long it is caged within tamas, forces of inertia and ignorance. To get rid of such inertia one must wake the atman within. This is the crucial moment of the turn towards advaita oneness. It is a remarkable sleight of hand that advaita demands: the folk and everyday devotional elements are used as necessary but are simultaneously and constantly being pushed to the back burner as incomplete, charged with mere materiality and sensuousness. The shudras can be fantastic banias, business people, but unless they realize the beauty and oneness of creation, the indivisible ocean of spiritual force, domain of the atman/brahman, they remain incomplete.

What ensues is a different kind of violence, something that must arise from pursuing a politics of ends, rather than that of responsibility. And that is a necessary strong-arm dictum of forcing agents to a certain radical vision. This is what one would call political decisonism. In this case, the underlying assumption is that one must respond to the nation’s necessary need for spiritual regeneration. There cannot be two ways about ones decision. It is wonderful to have absolute dedicated agents in this mission but the rest are forced into obeying the mother’s command. Ghose makes it clear towards the end of the article that “Some may, if they choose, be complete Sannyasis, most will be Brahmacharins who will return to the Grihasthashram when their allotted work is finished, but all must accept renunciation.” (On Nationalism)

One recalls Aurobindo’s deep engagement with one Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, a self-professed yogi, especially during his stay at Scott’s Lane, Calcutta in 1906. Abinash Bhattacharya, one of Ghose’s trusted extremist lieutenants, worried sick that Ghose might divest himself of extremist activities, confronted him one day. Bhattacharya has to say this: “ When fair means failed, I asked him one day: “Sejda, on one hand you practice the austerities of yoga and on the other you sleep with your wife. What kind of austerity is that?” Smiling sweetly he said: “ It is not simply by sharing a bed with one’s wife that Brahmacharya (chastity in spiritual practice) is lost. To form a group of naked ascetics is not my intention. We have thirty-three lakhs of such ascetics in India. I want ‘grihastha sannyasis’—men leading the full life in the world but when the need arises will renounce everything at the call of duty.” (Galpa-Bharati)

Since the metaphysical ideal of spiritual freedom or moksha cannot be conceived apart from swaraj, the synthesis of dualist sakta imagery of the mother goddess with the speculative non-dualist concept of brahman becomes necessary. In its own, the goddess imagery, and by transference political and economical self-rule, does not hold. It easy to realize that the radical spiritualist indeed needs to operate at the level of the sensual, but uses the notions of vital force and frenzy in a way that the dualist framework is ultimately denied in favour of a monist political structure.


The real problem with this scheme is that it must synthesize freedom and determinism. The principle of prakriti is preexistent and hence, always already determined whereas the free principle of purusa must rule over her. The political bondage is transferred into a cosmic bondage when the one cannot discriminate between the two principles. It appears that purusa is independent of causal process but actually his agency is already determined by nature, in her cosmic evolutionary process. The two principles of purusa and prakriti must eventually evolve into the brahman and into cosmic salvation, not national freedom.

Clearly, this is an issue with causation, if seen rationally (which is rarely an option in affective communities). One’s freedom is ascertained by events, but those events are always already determined. The effect is preexistent in the cause. In fact, the effect is actual transformation of the cause. Such a model of salvation (satkaryavada or parinamvada) skillfully slides over all possibilities of causal agency. Freedom is contained in bondage. In his later writings he would gradually resolve the causal question altogether by moving further towards internationalism and finally to gnosis. But that is another story.

The more important concern is the systematic elision of material and sensuous issues to the cosmic realm. The very idea of freedom in Vedanta and any philosophy of praxis are profoundly at odds. The relation between detachment (vairagya) and practice (abhyasa) is vital for the particular kind of freedom that the swadeshi spiritual anarchist envisages. The idea of volition does not arise in this framework because the idea of subjecthood itself is suspect. The central democratic distinction between negotium and otium, that active life could be looked differently from a contemplative one, is worked out in an ingenious way in advaita thought, so that the agency is accepted, but only within a causally determined scheme of things. Therefore, one requires an ascetic spirit of discipline for the political actor, who considers himself a nimitta, neither a fully realized ontological being nor a political subject.

Spiritual monism also refracts sense datum. Advaita, for instance, grants a curiously intermediate ontic status to the empirical world as being neither existent nor non-existent but inexplicable (anirvacya). Besides, it hardly allows diversity. The monistic logic is reaffirmed by a negative movement by the way of the logic of non-difference (abheda). It builds upon a radical critique of difference (bheda), of duality (dwaita), of multiplicity (nanatva), of relations (sambandha) and so forth. Consequently, the affective community gradually gets fixed and corporatized—any free dialectic between the individual and his culture is repudiated and all radical transformative politics made impossible.

The cultural-political trope of political vedantism must be recognized as a legitimate adversary for radical democratic politics in India. So intense is the attraction of this serene, gory and messianic radicalism that you tend to equate all micro-adversarial particularities in terms of one single enemy: the pluralist, even the culturally rooted one. The turn that Ghose’s Bandemataram took in the early years of the twentieth century effortlessly merged at one level with the political position of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay’s Sandhya, that outspoken radical-conservative magazine of the time in Bengal. So, how does one recoup a radical enough middle ground? For starters, how about celebrating tamas?

3 thoughts on “Ecstatic Archaisms of Aurobindo Ghose – Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. This is an attempt to look at certain elite notions of violence since the colonial period. But Maoist violence has nothing to do with this phenomenon.


  2. I agree with you Debarshi that the differences between the two must be underlined.

    But it if our basic yardstick is democracy, we notice some similar notes too. First, who is a non-elite? A large section of vanguard middle class is involved in emancipatory movements of various hues. Elitism sometimes becomes a highly relative term. Second, a certain righteous asceticism is one core impetus against forms of liberal hedonism in many radical movements across spectrum.Third, the symbolism & spectacle of violence (especially the motif of annihilation-‘khatam’) is not lost upon us. Here liberalism is seen as soft and dialogic. Finally, the one guiding beacon of radical politics is an existentialist impulse, which often hovers around a quasi-spiritual domain.

    I believe Maoism itself cannot be a blanket term. It changes its character across time—there are fundamental differences between seventies and the nineties Trotskyites and Maoists, for example. And also across space, as for instance, between Maoists in Nepal and in India, or for that matter in different areas in India there have been various shades and trends.

    The point is that whether we can have a considered discussion on the nature of violence, and its usefulness in critical and constructive politics. That absolutely includes state violence.


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