Sri Aurobindo on Ethics and Sri Aurobindo: His Political Life and Activities: A Review by Dr. Prema Nandakumar

Sri Aurobindo on Ethics: compiled and edited by Anurag Banerjee. Published by Overman Foundation, Kolkata. Price— E-copy: Rs. 20. (Hard-copy: Rs. 60).

Sri Aurobindo: His Political Life and Activities: compiled and edited by Anurag Banerjee with a preface by Prof. Kittu Reddy. Published by Overman Foundation, Kolkata. Price—E-copy: Rs. 200. (Hard-copy: Rs. 450).

Anurag Banerjee rightly refers to “the ocean of his (Sri Aurobindo’s) writings” when introducing Sri Aurobindo on Ethics.  One of the reasons I have found people avoiding Sri Aurobindo’s great works like The Life Divine and Savitri is that they find them too long to be sure of themselves in reading them through!  Fortunately, there have been compilers during the last half a century who have given us choice passages with which we feel comfortable.  With Sri Aurobindo’s writings, the centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.  Thus we gain much by reading the excerpts.  Quite often we are caught in the net of  Sri Aurobindo’s sublime style and proceed to take up whole  books for study.  Thus a compiler of Anurag Banerjee’s type is most welcome as a help for one’s Aurobindonian shelf.

Sri Aurobindo never called himself a philosopher.  Certainly he never thought of himself as a Socrates.  Yet Dharma is the base of all his writings.  Dharma is a unique word ad ethics is but a part of it.  What constitutes morality?  What are the ethical imperatives that govern our life?   Does dry morality help us make a truly dharmic statement?  What place has religion in ethics?  Does a fear of God help man keep to the right path? Does the moral order depend upon the nature of the individual man?  Has ethics something to do in helping us achieve self-transformation?  Sri Aurobindo feels that it does have a part to play, though with limitations.

“The ethical impulse and attitude, so all-important to humanity, is a means by which it struggles out of the lower harmony and universality based uponinconscience and broken up by Life into individual discords towards a higher harmony and universality based upon conscient oneness with all existences.  Arriving at that goal, this means will no longer be necessary or even possible, since the qualities and oppositions on which it depends will naturally dissolve and disappear in the final reconciliation.”

Anurag has culled almost all the passages in Sri Aurobindo’s writings that present an explanation of the term. The book gives us a global view of the ethical ideal, since the Mahayogi was also deeply read in western literature on the subject.  Like all else in man’s experience the ethical ideal also helps man advance towards the Divine.  Truth and Justice are demanded by humanity; but compassion too.  Ethics cannot be mechanical. 

“An act of justice, truth, love, compassion, purity, sacrifice becomes then the faultless expression, the natural outflowering of our soul of justice, our soul of truth, our soul of love and compassion, our soul of purity or sacrifice.  And before the greatness of its imperative mandate to the outer nature the vital being and the practical reason and surface seeking intelligence must and do bow down as before something greater than themselves, something that belongs directly to the divine and the infinite.”

One never tires of reading about the pre-Pondicherry days in Sri Aurobindo’s life.  There was the decade of political activism and today the Alipore Bomb Case remains an unparalleled court-fight in which Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das argued on behalf of Sri Aurobindo. The biographers of Sri Aurobindo like A.B. Purani, K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar and Manoj Das have given us important insights into the trial but one is always eager to read how exactly the case had proceeded.  It is so with Sri Aurobindo’s closeness to the Bande Mataram Movement itself.  A compilation of the literature of those days is most welcome for the common reader, and we have one now in Sri Aurobindo:  His Political Life and Activities.  It is good to have many of the original documents (with the original spellings too!) in this sumptuous volume.           

Sri Aurobindo’s political life may be said to have begun with his return toIndiain 1893 for he had begun to contribute powerful articles to Indu Prakash even then.  But the activist-period may have begun only with the new year.  What follows is what watchers of the Aurobindonian skies know.  However, there are those small things which one is grateful to have at the arm’s reach.  The names of the members of the National Council of Education.  Good to know that the list is led by seven Maharajas.  There are Nawabs, leading lawyers, educationists and Kavirajs.  We have read Sri Aurobindo’s address to the Bengal National College Union. But I did not know he was entertained “to a sumptuous lunch in the Hindu style”!

Plenty of matter about the Barisal Conference including the full text of the address by the President A. Rasul (read out on his behalf as he was unwell).  That was our heroic age when the Bengalees refused to recognize the Partition of Bengal and the President gave a clear message, relevant for all time.  He wanted his Mohammedan countrymen to join the Hindus and work for the motherland and not fall a prey to the “divide and rule’ tricks of the British, unless they wished to go away from their motherland to Aravia, Persia or Turkey.

The Bande Mataram days, the Congress Sessions, the Alipore Bomb Trial … each page in this work is inspiring.  The precious document of Beachcroft’s judgement, a masterly, almost Sherlock Holmesian analysis.  Sri Aurobindo’s speeches after his release, including the famous speech delivered at Uttarpara, official documents where he is discussed, the National Fund, Bepin Chandra Pal’s article on Sri Aurobindo … You keep opening a page and stumbling upon a treasure that immediately opens the floodgates of memory about the heroic age in the twentieth century. Sri Aurobindo:  His Political Life and Activities is indeed wonderful gift from a lover of Sri Aurobindo to the lovers of Sri Aurobindo. 

                                                                                     Prema Nandakumar

 About the Author: Dr. Prema Nandakumar is an independent researcher, translator, critic and authoress who writes in Tamil and English. She was the first to submit the thesis of doctoral degree in Savitri (Sri Aurobindo’e epic poem) in Andhra University. It was published as A Study of Savitri in 1962. Her post-doctoral work has been published as Dante and Sri Aurobindo in 1981. She has authored about twenty-five books in English and Tamil. She is a recipient of several awards which include the Sri Aurobindo Puraskar and Panditha Ratna. She has been a member of the Academic Council, Central Institute of Higha Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi (1988-91); Member, Board of Studies in English, Andhra University, Waltair; Manba, National Executive of The Indian P.E.N., Senate member of Bharathidasan University and Visiting Professor, Swami Vivekananda Chair, Mahatma Gandhi University. Her published works include titles like ‘A Study of Savitri’, ‘The Glory and the Good’, ‘Dante and Sri Aurobindo’, ‘Subramania Bharati’, ‘Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Introduction’, ‘The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram’ etc. 

This review was originally published in the November 2011 issue of the well-known bilingual magazine ‘The Oriya Aurovilian’.

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