Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Selective appropriation is a valuable concept advanced by Sri Aurobindo

Defining Indian Identity in a Globalized World Sachidananda Mohanty
My essay is divided into three parts. In the first, I shall underline the crisis we in India currently face in terms of defining our identity in a globalized and unipolar world. I shall secondly suggest that in order to grasp the real meaning of this crisis, we need to review the predicament India faced in the late 19th and early 20th century vis a vis the British colonialism and the hegemony of the West. Finally, I shall argue, with the help of some of the insights of Sri Aurobindo, that it is possible to devise strategies of resistance and negotiate with the West on equal terms.
Interestingly, some of these strategies of decolonization and empowerment, in accordance with the Aurobindonean viewpoints, reflect recent developments in cultural theory in the West. Today, we confront a world that is Janus-faced: we are increasingly witness to the loss of national sovereignty. Paradoxically enough, while cultural and economic frontiers today recognize few barriers, much of contemporary conflicts worldwide seem to be rooted in rival claims of the Nation States.
Several terms that have circulated and gained currency in recent times seem to characterize the present crisis of culture at the international level. For instance, Gulf War-I, during 1990, front-paged “Islam and the West”. Similarly, George Bush Senior and Junior spoke of the “New World Order” and the “Crusade” against “the axis of evil”. Likewise, Japanese American historian, Francis Fukayama spoke of “the end of history”, just as International Affairs specialist and Harvard academic, Samuel P Huntington referred to the “clash of civilization” which heralds, according to this school of thought, the ultimate triumph of the American system and way of life.
There seems to be continuity between this note of ‘Triumphalism’ and the 19th century colonial mission of the West. In a schizophrenic manner, the liberal discourse of progress of Victorian England, represented by John Stuart Mill’s important essay “On Liberty”, and Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University” went hand in hand with the “containing” mission of the West.
Mercantilism and the spread of the empire rested on the judicious amalgamation of knowledge and power. For, unlike earlier invasions, European imperialism used culture as a tool of colonialism. This entailed, among the ‘natives’, the internalization of their secondary or servile status at the psychic level. In ethics, law, jurisprudence, literature, theology and religion, the West was shown to be superior. Through a series of binary polarities such as: rational--irrational, scientific--unscientific, masculine--feminine, developed--undeveloped, the imperial discourse paved the way for conquest and colonization. Even in a fine essay like “On Liberty” that has an universal appeal, J.S. Mill castigates the Chinese for their alleged denial of individuality.
As Edward Said declares insightfully in a recent article: “there is considerable irony in the realization that as today’s globalization world draws together, we may be approaching the kind of standardization and homogeneity that Goethe’s ideas were specifically formulated to prevent”.(p.4).
The colonial agenda did not go unchallenged, however. The Indian Renaissance, represented and spearheaded by a host of luminaries such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo offered resistance to the intellectual challenge of the West.
Sadly, post-independent India, as indeed postcolonial societies world over, do not show adequate signs of economic and cultural emancipation. There is a continued control, domination and containment by the West in significant spheres of our national life. Our economic and/or developmental model is still inspired by the West. In education and culture, we are still the children of Macaulay. Our polity, press and parliamentary system of election and governance continue to be the relics of our colonial past.
Around 1918, Sri Aurobindo, an early cultural critic of India, wrote a powerful rejoinder to the hostile work of William Archer. In the last chapter of his seminal book, The Foundation of Indian Culture, entitled “Indian Culture and External Influence”, he outlined several important ways the Indian Self could negotiate with the West. I wish to argue that some of these principles could be imaginatively applied in our cultural context today. They make Sri Aurobindo’s thought extremely relevant to our present milieu.
The exponents of globalization--economic and cultural--argue that it promotes unity among divergent people and nationalities. It creates a global village and therefore is a source of cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, Sri Aurobindo seems to make a fundamental distinction between true internationalism and the so called globalization of today. He argues that
“it is not by abolishing ourselves, our own special temperament and power that we can get at the living oneness, but by following it out and raising it to its highest possibilities of freedom and action…I have insisted that uniformity is not a real but dead unity: Uniformity kills life, while real unity, if well founded, becomes vigorous and fruitful by a rich energy of variation.”(p.386). He regrets that in the last century we imitated the European civilization and attempted to make ourselves a sort of brown Englishmen. “To throw our ancient culture into the dustbin and put on the livery or uniform of the West was a mistaken and illegitimate endeavor.”(pp.386-387).
Sri Aurobindo maintains that when two cultures meet and one is superior, some imitation is inevitable. But it has to be a creative imitation. For instance, we see that during the 19th century, during our cultural transactions, we learned several things from the West. In literature, we acquired the novel, the short story, the critical essay; in science, not only discoveries and inventions but methods of inductive research; in politics, the press, the platform and forms of agitation. These have been necessary and welcome additions to our culture.
Some argue that, we can take the good from the West and reject the bad. This is a refrain that is voiced now as it was expressed during the colonial period: “take the good work- ethic of American culture and discard the so called materialism and consumerism of America!” Sri Aurobindo believes that this would not be easy!
“Obviously, if we ‘take over’ any thing ,” he argues, “the good and the bad in it will come in together pell-mell. If we take over for instance that terrible, monstrous and compelling thing, that giant Asuric creation, European industrialism—unfortunately we are being forced by circumstances to do it—whether we take it in its form or its principle, we may under more favorable conditions develop by it our wealth and economic resources, but assuredly we shall get too its social discourse and moral plagues and cruel problems, and I do not see how we shall avoid becoming the slaves of the economic aim in life and losing the spiritual principle of or culture.” (p.388)
He elaborates upon the notion of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ further and offers the following argument:
But, besides, these terms good and bad in this connection mean nothing definite, give us no help. If I must use them, where they can have only a relative significance, in a matter not of ethics, but of an interchange between life and life, I must first give them this general significance that whatever helps me to find myself more intimately, nobly, with a greater and sounder possibility of self-expressive creation, is good; whatever carries me out of my orientation, whatever weakens and belittles my power, richness, breadth and height of self-being, is bad for me. If the distinction is so understood, it will be evident, I think, to any serious and critical mind which tries to fathom things, that the real point is not the taking over of this or that formal detail, which has only a sign value, for example, widow remarriage, but a dealing with great effective ideas, such as are the ideas, in the external field of life, of social and political liberty, equality, democracy. If I accept any of these ideas it is not because they are modern or Europe, which is in itself no recommendation, but because they are human, because they present fruitful viewpoints to the spirit, because they are things of the greatest importance in the future development of the life of man. (pp.388-389)
Thus, there need be no inherent antipathy between India and the West. In fact, a conflict between the two, argues Sri Aurobindo, is necessary and welcome. He offers an effective antidote to the insular and chauvinistic position, currently espoused among sections of our countrymen, in the following words:
Mentally, vitally and physically, I do not grow by a pure self-development from within in a virgin isolation; I am not a separate self-existent being proceeding from a past to a new becoming in a world of its own where no one is but itself, nothing works but its own inner powers and musings. There is in every individualized existence a double action, a self-development from within which is its reception of impacts from outside which it has to accommodate to its own individuality and make into material of self-growth and self-power. The two operations are not mutually exclusive, nor is the second harmful to the first except when the inner genius is too weak to deal victoriously with its environmental world; on the contrary the reception of impacts stimulates in a vigorous and healthy being its force for self-development and is in aid to greater and more pronouncedly characteristic self-determination.(p.390)
It is important to recognize, Sri Aurobindo adds, that unlike the Greek and the Chinese, “at no time did Indian culture exclude all together external influences; on the contrary a very great power of selective assimilation subordination and transformation of external elements was a characteristic of its process.” However he concedes that such “strong separative aloofness that distinguished the ancient civilization is no longer possible, the race of mankind have come too close to each other, are being thrown together in a certain unavoidable life unity. We are confronted with the more difficult problem of living in the full stress if this greater interaction and imposing as its impairs the law of your being.”(p.392)
What then should be the ideal way of dealing with the West in an era of globalization?
Although, answers are hard to come by, clearly revivalism is not a viable option. As Sri Aurobindo says aptly: “we cannot get rid of a certain element of inevitable change it has produce upon us anymore than a man can go back in life to what he was some years ago and recover entire and unaffected past mentality. Time and its influences have not only passed over him but have carried him forward in their stream. We cannot go backward to a past form of our being but we ca go forward to a large reposition of ourselves in which we shall make a better, more living, more real, more self possessed us of the intervening experience.”(pp.392-93).
Selective appropriation is a valuable concept advanced by Sri Aurobindo. But, in order to undertake this task, first we need to discover our soul, the genius of our true Being, our inmost Self. This can be founded ultimately upon a spiritual foundation. That , again is a direction given by the Master.
These then are some of the principles enunciated by Sri Aurobindo that can guide and help us define our cultural identity today. We must decolonize our mind just as we need to discard models of development and empowerment that are inspired by the West and bear no connection to the reality of the Indian situation. Defining the Indian mind in an era of unipolar world is no easy task. There is no single principle, formula or panacea that can be applied in a uniform or dogmatic manner. The approach requires imagination, critical intelligence and flexibility. As suggested in this article, Sri Aurobindo provides many answers. It is time we made a beginning in the light of his approach.
(The author, a Fulbright Scholar at Texas and Yale 1990-81, is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Hyderabad. He is a former Senior Academic Fellow at the American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad and former Vice President, South India American Studies Network (SIASN). The opinion expressed here is his own.) NOTES AND REFERENCES
1.All references to Sri Aurobindo’s Foundations of Indian Culture pertain to the SABCL edition,1972. Page references are parenthetically given in the text.
2. Edward Said, ”A Window on the World”, The Guardian, August 2, 2003.(Adapted from a new edition of Orientalism, published by Penguin Books on august 28.)
4.the colonial underpinning of historiography and other disciplinary formations have been unearthed in recent critical works. James Mill’s three volume history of India provides a more blatant attempt of this kind. It is worth recalling that Mill Senior, the father of J.S.Mill worked for the British East India Company for several years before retirement..

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