Sri Aurobindo’s Renaissance in India: An Approach




Renaissance in India is a little book of prophecy. It is a prose equivalent of a bard’s vision. That is perhaps why it is so brief, compact and organic unlike the other elaborate. sprawling books that Sri Aurobindo wrote such as The Future Poetry or The Foundations of Indian Culture, two books which incidentally are relevant for a study of the work we deal with here. We may look at (i) the thematic structure of The Renaissance and (ii) follow it up with a close study of its “rhetoric”, its organization by a scrutiny of its vocabulary, imagery, tone, etc.




The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram pithily declares: “Sri Aurobindo’s work is a unique earth transformation.”


            She goes on to explain:


“Above the mind there are several levels of conscious being, among which the really divine world is what Sri Aurobindo has called the Supermind, the world of the Truth. But in between is what he has distinguished as the Overmind, the world of the Cosmic Gods. Now it is this Overmind that has up to the present governed our world. It is the highest that man has been able to attain in illumined consciousness. It has been taken for the Supreme Divine and all those who have reached it have never for a moment doubted that they have touched the true spirit. For its splendours are so great to the ordinary human consciousness that it is absolutely dazzled into believing that here at last is the crowning reality. And yet the fact is that the Overmind is far below the true Divine. It is not the authentic home of Truth. It is only the domain of the formateurs (French word for form makers), all those creative powers and deities to whom men have bowed down since the beginning of history. And the reason why the true Divine has not manifested and transformed the earth-­nature is precisely that the Overmind has been mistaken for the Supermind…..It is the direct descent of the Supernatural

Consciousness and Power that alone can utterly recreate life in terms of the Spirit.”


This commentary of the Mother should provide us with an appropriate perspective to look at Sri Aurobindo’s writings be it philosophical, mystical, poetry or history. What is it that gives unity to his works, thinking and his Sadhana? The kernel of his unifying vision? This could be termed as “Spiritualization of matter.”


Indian philosophy, Indian thought, Indian spirituality have been expounded time and again by eminent historians of thought, particularly those who have had the advantage of sharp, systematic, objective, Western critical training. But history or philosophy ceases to be a mere intellectual formulation or conceptual system–when it is presented by a Yogi a fully realized being. It is neither a series of dead facts nor abstract discursive systems, much less an effusive, personal, sentimental exaltation of pet ideas. The discipline in the hands of a Yogin is the product of an immediate vision, Darsana, a realization of the truth, an intuitive apprehension of the whole panorama. While it is the experience of one exalted individual, it has none of the disquieting narrowness and disabling subjectivity of an ordinary mind which becomes rigid and outdated. Also for all its being an intuitive apprehension, it does not dispense with the strength of the intellect. It is integral in its approach. It becomes thought, art and vision­ all fused in one.


It is no exaggeration to say that it is this unique quality­what one might call “Aurobindonian– what one might call that distinguishes all his writings. And The Renaissance in India is no exception. It would be useful to place this little work in prose in the general context of Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts, experiences and convictions.


Sri Aurobindo believes in the evolution of the human spirit from its crudest manifestations to the subtlest and the completest. It is because life is part of a greater life, it cannot get ossified at some point but must inevitably and inexorably progress. But its greatest fascination is that the progress is never linear or in simple logical terms. It is a perpetual exploration of possibilities and their realization. Again this evolution is not negative and exclusive but it is symphonic and inclusive. The heterogeneous ideas are blended into one organic pattern of complex music.


The Renaissance in India first appeared serially in “Arya­between August and November 1918.


The starting point of the book is the observations of a con­temporary critic Mr. James H. Cousins. (Future Poetry again was the product of a similar beginning.) Mr. Cousins saw a new flowering in Indian ethos, a fresh efflorescence in various fields. Sri Aurobindo, while acknowledging the presence of the phenomenon, insists on a redefinition of the term “Renaissance” especially in the Indian context. He points that this Indian Renaissance is not like momentous turning point of European culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–“a seizure of Christianized, Teutonized, Feudalized Europe by the old Graeco-­Latin spirit”. 1 This is perhaps more like the Celtic Movement in Ireland. (He refers to the Irish Movement in letters which W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and others ushered in.) Because it is not so much a new birth as a “reawakened national spirit to find a new impulse of self-expression”. 2 But even this is not a close parallel for Sri Aurobindo. He calls for a thorough reappraisal or revaluation of the situation.


This takes him on to a twin-pointed labour: on the one hand of rejecting the misconceptions about the nature of the Indian mind among Europeans and on the other, of providing a proper perspective. A comparison with Japan illuminates the point. Japan adopted and assimilated the “Western motives and their forms” wholesale because of its temperamental adaptability. 3 Unfortunately or fortunately Indian mind is not a void–nor an empty barn or reservoir - to seize and fill itself with the deposits of a massive Western wave. It has had a great past with stupendous achievements in spiritual, religious, intellectual, cultural and aesthetic fields. As he puts it: “India lives centrally in the spirit, with less buoyancy and vivacity and therefore with less ready adaptiveness of creation, but a greater, intenser, more brooding depth: her processes are apt to be deliberate, uncertain and long because she has to take things into that depth from its profoundest inwardness to modify or remould the more outward parts of her life”.4 Elsewhere in The Foundations of Indian Culture Sri Aurobindo says that “India alone with whatever fall or decline of light and vigour has remained faithful to the heart of the spiritual has refused and is refusing to give up her worshipped godhead or how her knee to the strong reigning idols of rationalism and commercialism. Affected she has been, but not overcome”. 5


Thus the theme of Sri Auroblndo in this little book is the momentous encounter of the two powerful opposite civilizations and its tremendous impact on the future of the country. One is reminded of the work of the philosopher-historian Arnold Toynbee. The World and the West, particularly the section where he deals with the “psychology of encounters.” Here is a profounder analysis of the intricate, complex situation by a visionary and a prophet who brings the weight of all his realizations, his Sadhana to the exposition. One also recalls the Irish poet Yeats’s visionary apprehension of the encounter between the antithetical Graeco­Roman civilization and the primary Christianity in his two songs from the play Resurrection. Sri Aurobindo, besides being a creative artist, is a visionary too. For all its being in prose, the tone of the work becomes “bardic.”


Sri Aurobindo projects for us spatially the image of the great rich past of India in all its contours which gathered a huge momentum, conquering all known fields of knowledge and exhausted itself just before the eighteenth century. The movement has always been in the form of a descending spiral with the spirit at the centre or apex. We start with the Age of the. Spirit, the age of intuitive apprehension of reality; then there is the assimilation of the spirit by the lower parts of the being and its truths brought down to the level of the physical and the vital.


Sri Aurobindo describes brilliantly the nature of Indian spirituality which has been woefully misconstrued for long. He calls it “the sense of the Infinite”, which he says is native to the Indian mind. 6 But this spirituality far from shrinking from life, manifests itself in “stupendous vitality, her almost un­imaginably prolific creativenes”.7 (Sri Aurobindo has put the idea beautifully in a similar context in Future Poetry when he says: “We have no longer any ascetic quarrel with our Mother Earth”. 8  Affirmation of life is an idea central to Sri Aurobindo’s vision. Thus he emphasizes the vitality of the ancient culture.


Besides this vitality, there was the strong intellectual and ethical facet to the spirituality. But what is more splendid is that it was innately aesthetic. As he beautifully puts it, “both the rule of the intellect and the rhythm of beauty are hostile to the spirit of chaos”. 9 Now this accounts for the sense of fullness, the sense of harmony and transcendence in the great past of India. Sri Aurobindo, therefore, affirms that a renaissance could only be a return of this tide, though the forms it takes may differ: “Its real keynote is the tendency of spiritual realiza­tion, not cast at all into any white monotone, but many-faceted, many-coloured, as supple in its adaptability as is intense in its highest pitches”. 10


The period of decline that followed this great surge of life was something inevitable. It is marked by the “sinking of that superabundant vital energy,” the diminution of the spiritual light into sporadic feeble fire.


It is at this point that the European wave swept over India. Sri Aurobindo describes the abject, important condition of decline graphically: “the momentary helplessness of the Indian mind in the face of new and unprecedented conditions.” But that was only “momentary.” “A less vigorous energy of life might well have foundered and perished under the double weight of the deadening of its innate motives and a servile imitation of alien ideas and habits”. 11


The reception to European contact was not simple. There was a period of rebuff, a period of servile copying, of conservative rejection ending in openness and flexibility, trying to give every­thing a form Indian. For none of the poses could be permanent and complete. Sri Aurobindo describes it humorously: “An anglicised India is a thing we can no longer view as either possible or desirable–and it could only, if pursued to the end, have made us painful copyists, clumsy followers always stumbling in the wake of European evolution and always fifty years behind it”. 12


What is it that India gained by its contact with an antithetical civilization? It stirred again the intellectual and critical impulse and pitched Indian spirit against novel, challenging conditions. A revaluation of the past culture was inevitable. The old spiritual knowledge had to manifest itself into “new form of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge”. 13 The modern problems had to be confronted in the light of the Indian spirit.


What would this new spirit be like? Would it merely be a rationalization of our life, “keeping perhaps some spirituality, religion, Indianism, as a graceful decoration in the background” as Sri Aurobindo caustically comments? 14 Would it be a mere “Asiatic modification of Western modernism”? 15 No. Sri Aurobindo affirms that this renaissance shall usher in some great, new, original thing of the first importance to the future of human civilization. As Brownings Abt Vogler puts it, out of the three sounds we shall frame, not a fourth sound but a star.


The unique goal that this Ranaissance has is a “collective advance towards the light, power, peace, unity and harmony of the diviner nature of humanity”.16 Therefore this reawakened spirituality will be an inclusive rather than exclusive, synthetic rather than electic.


Let us briefly see how the rhetoric of Renaissance in India accomplishes the task for its author.


The first thing that we notice about the book is its spirit of unity. It is a work wrought in the heat of a predominant passion. We may in this respect, usefully contrast it with another work with a seemingly similar subject like Radhakrishnan’s Religion in a Changing World. In the latter we note its looseness of thought and structure, its randomness, its lack of a unifying vision for all its recounting of ideas. We then realize that Renaissance in India is poetry and has an organic form in the Coleridgean sense of the term, while the other book is marked by eclecticism. There is all the difference between a philosopher who is a scholar and a philosopher who is a Yogin.


The central image in the work is significantly personalized. It is not just “the mind of Europe” as the impersonal T. S. Eliot would say but the “Shakti.” It is again not the sentimental Mother India but an immense cosmic reservoir of sublime creativity. She is the subject, her creating supernature, her holocaust, her decline and her renaissance is the subject of the book. She is also called the Titaness. She is seen in the present as a giant, imprisoned for long but slowly rising from torpor to a state of wakefulness. In the past, Sri Aurobindo visualizes her as a great dynamic force, as a great creating supernature manifesting herself in astonishing variety.


Now let us examine the vocabulary to find out what words are used which cluster round this titanic image of the Shakti and help us realize her many facets.


Sri Aurobindo draws our attention to three aspects which are organic to the Indian spirit or Psyche: Spirituality, Intellectuality and Aesthetic sense. He uses one rich image cluster in that long sustained passage which spatially projects for us the great past of India. Spirituality is its major key. But curiously enough this spirituality is felt and realized in acutely vital terms. Let us mark the terms which go to make what I could call a massive series of Life-images:


her stupendous vitality.

her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life.

her almost prolific creativeness.


Another group is more radically phrased:


            the teeming of a superabundant energy of life.


And the master phrase is a paradox:


the teeming of the Infinite within her.


Surely these terms affirm spirit in the name of life.


Her intellectuality is described as “all embracing and opulent.” Her period of decline is seen as the recession of the vital spirit, the dwindling of the fire of life. It is


a petrifaction of the mind and life in the relics of forms.


Her revival is presented in terms of rejuvenation:


            novel potentialities of creation and evolution.

            the shaping (for herself) a new body.


Her end is described as the progress towards the perfect spiritualization of the mind and life.


Her goal or Renaissance is an integral self-finding.


Bengal is seen as


            the chief testing crucible of the first worship of

the Shakti of India.


Thus the much misunderstood spirituality of India, far from being ascetical, has been the teeming of the Infinite, it is


            a human spirituality.


Sri Aurobindo declares that


            spirit without mind, spirit without body is not the type of man, therefore a human spirituality must not belittle the mind, life or body or hold them of small account; it will rather hold them of high account, they are the conditions and instruments of the life of the Spirit in man. 17


The thought is summed up in a much more sententious utterance:


there was never a national ideal of poverty in India as some would have us believe, nor was barrenness or the squalor, the essential setting of her spirituality.18


We now understand the import of that powerful declaration already quoted from Future Poetry:


We have no longer any ascetic quarrel with our Mother Earth.


Another group of terms that cluster round the Shakti relates to the ideas of harmony, order, organization. Here are some of the attributes of Indian intellectuality and aesthetic sense:


a spirit of organization and scrupulous order, the desire of the mind to tread through life with a harmonized knowledge and in the right rhythm and measure, the harmony of the ancient Indian culture. 19


The Shastras and the Dharmas, the inner laws of our being work toward this harmony. All these phrases culminate in the following observation:


            the rule of the intellect and the rhythm of beauty are hostile to the spirit of chaos. 20


The emerging harmony is a Coleridgean reconciliation of opposites, the resolution of discordant things into concord:


Its real keynote is the tendency of spiritual realization, not cast at all into any white monotone, but many-faceted, many-coloured, as supple in its adaptability as it is intense in its highest pitches. 21


The key epithets which describe this order are “synthetical”, and “inclusive fullness.” Since the great past has been such a one, the revival will also be not something entirely new nor will it be a mere repetition. The spirit will find new forms to express itself. The recurring words are


restatement, remoulding, reconstruction, a complex breaking, reshaping and new building.


May we end up then by emphasizing the musical terms in which Sri Aurobindo throughout the book visualizes the future? He talks of harmony, rhythm, measure, unity, synthesis, symphony and so on. There are according to Sri Aurobindo two principles of growth: One is the principle of growth by struggle and this is distinctly European. The second is the principle of concert and the Indian culture proceeds on this principle. An Indian Renaissance will strive to find its base in a unity and reach out towards some greater Oneness.


The whole thought is thus in keeping with Sri Aurobindo’s call for spiritualization of matter and perfection of human instru­ments in the light of the spirit.



1 The Renaissance in India. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. P.2.

2 Ibid., P. 2.

3 Ibid., P. 22.

4 Ibid

5 The Foundations of Indian Culture. Sri Aurobindo Ashram. P. 14.

6 The Renaissance, P. 6.

7 Ibid., P.7.

8 The Future Poetry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, P. 205.

9 The Renaissance, P. 14.

10 Ibid., P. 15

11 Ibid., P. 18,

12 Ibid., P. 24.

13 Ibid., P. 19.

14 Ibid., P. 50.

15 Ibid., P. 23.

16 Ibid., P. 49.

17 Ibid., P. 44.

18 Ibid., P. 45.

19 Ibid., P. 11.

20 Ibid.,P. 1.

21 Ibid., P. 15.