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The essays that comprise The Foundations of Indian Culture were first published in Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s philosophical journal Arya, from December, 1918, to January, 1921. They were later revised before publication in book form.
The immediate stimulus for these essays was a book entitled India and the Future (1917) by William Archer, an English writer. Written from the standpoint of Western rationalism, this work was an extremely negative account of Indian life and culture. Archer concluded that the entirety of Indian philosophy, religion, art, and literature was a mass of barbarism. Aurobindo believed that Archer had been deliberately unfair and that he was profoundly ignorant of the beliefs about which he wrote. At a time when India was still under British rule and heavily dominated by Western ideas and values, Archer’s denigration of Indian culture expressed an attitude that was all too common, prompting Aurobindo to embark on a wide-ranging defense of his native land and traditions.
The Foundations of Indian Culture is a collection of essays falling into three main parts. The first contains three essays under the title, “The Issue: Is India Civilized?,” and the second holds a series of essays entitled, “A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Culture.” The third part consists of “A Defence of Indian Culture,” which is divided into four sections, “Religion and Spirituality,” “Indian Art,” “Indian Literature,” and “Indian Polity.”
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In his first essays, Aurobindo argues that a culture is to be valued to the extent that it encourages a natural harmony of spirit, mind, and body, and a civilization must be judged by how it expresses that harmony in its fundamental ideas and ways of living. A culture may be material, as in Western society, or predominantly spiritual, as in India. This poses the question of whether the future hope of humanity depends on a mechanized, utilitarian society based on reason and science or on a spiritual, intuitive, and religious civilization, in which every aspect of the culture works together to advance the progress of the soul toward a higher spiritual consciousness.
For Aurobindo, the answer is clear. Although he does not dismiss the contributions the West has made to human progress, he argues that it is the spiritual traditions of India that can inspire the rest of the world to grasp the unity of all humankind, based on the knowledge of a universal divine consciousness. This will be a unity in which diversity will flourish, rather than a spurious unity in which one culture simply obliterates all others. To this end, India must live up to the highest ideals of its tradition and defend itself against the infiltration of alien ideas.
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“A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Culture” contains Aurobindo’s refutation of many of the claims made by Archer, whom Aurobindo sees as representative of a whole school of Western authors who had denigrated India. Archer’s main charges were that Indian culture was riddled with superstitions, irrationality, and immorality; it did not encourage individual responsibility; and it was defeatist in its ability to keep pace with the modern world. Moreover, the prominence given to the theory of karma and reincarnation encouraged a passive otherworldliness, the effect of which was enervating and inimical to the exercise of the individual will.
Against this barrage of criticism, Aurobindo denies at length that India embodies a pessimistic, world-negating philosophy. He points out that India’s ancient civilization was founded on the four pillars of human life: the fulfillment of desire and enjoyment of the world (kama); material, economic goals and the needs of mind and body (artha); ethical conduct (dharma); and finally spiritual liberation (moksha). The fourth pillar was attainable only after the first three had been reached. At its best, Indian spirituality has a profundity that secular Western culture, which recognizes only what is tangible and can be grasped by the rational mind, cannot match. It represents a “high effort of the human spirit to rise beyond the life of desire and vital satisfaction and arrive at an acme of spiritual calm, greatness, strength, illumination, divine realization, settled peace and bliss.”
From this basis, Aurobindo proceeds to his detailed defense of Indian culture. First, he tackles the spirit of Indian religion, which differs profoundly from what he regards as the Western concern with dogma and creed. Indeed, many Westerners have difficulty in accepting that Hinduism is in fact a religion because it has neither a single leader nor a governing ecclesiastical body and seems to be able to admit the validity of all beliefs and spiritual experiences. Aurobindo points out that in India, dogma, or fixed intellectual belief, is the least important aspect of religion; what matters is the religious spirit.
The fundamental idea in Indian religion is the belief in a transcendent, infinite, eternal, or absolute dimension to existence, from which all finite manifestations of life are derived. This absolute eternal consciousness manifests in a multitude of apparently different forms merely for the purpose of its own play. Thus the absolute is the ultimate essence of the human self, and the goal of human life is the realization of this supreme truth, which could also be termed a state of god realization. Although in India, there are many different sects and conflicting philosophies, all accept these truths as the essential basis of religion.
Aurobindo stresses at length the generally tolerant spirit of Indian religion. Although he concedes that there have been outbreaks of fanaticism and persecution, they have not been on the scale of what took place in the West. India recognized the need for variety in spiritual experience and was ready to acknowledge the validity of new spiritual teachers who have enlarged the religious tradition. At its best, Hinduism has found a correct balance between spiritual order and spiritual freedom. Order and stability were supplied by family and communal traditions, the Brahmans (priests and scholars), and the succession of gurus (spiritual teachers) who not only preserved the tradition from generation to generation but also made innovations in it. The Hindu willingness to develop and grow, to build freely on the foundations of tradition, is also apparent in the way its authorized scriptures kept growing in number and in the fact that it allowed wide differences in interpretation of its central texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, which has prevented their being used as instruments of tyranny rather than enlightenment.
Continuing his contrast of India with the West, Aurobindo argues that Western religions mistakenly believe that a true spirituality can be experienced by the intellect or emotions, or through building systems of ethics or cultivating aesthetic beauty. However, for Indians, genuine spiritual life is a deeper, more inward experience, because the inmost self is beyond the intellect or the emotions, however discriminating or subtle those may be. Anything less than this, in Indian tradition, is considered to be ignorance or at best a merely superficial form of knowledge.
Given this perspective, the ultimate goal of Indian spiritual culture is to uplift all aspects of life, to “divinize human nature.” Aurobindo identifies this as the third stage in the evolution of Indian spirituality, and it is not yet complete. The first stage occurred at the dawn of the Vedic era. The Vedas, the most ancient of Indian scriptures, recorded humanity’s first intimation of the divine as mediated through the forms of external nature. The Vedas also spoke of a deeper spiritual truth, knowledge of which was reserved for initiates, who understood the function and essence of the gods in their inner as well as their outer meanings. The second, post-Vedic, stage is characterized by the rise of epic literature and of philosophy. The Vedic gods lost their original significance and a new pantheon appeared, centering on the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The third stage will fully arrive at some point in the future, when all people, rather than only a few, will “found their whole life on some fully revealed power and grand uplifting truth of the Spirit.” Only then will India be able to say that it has fulfilled its spiritual mission to the world.
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In his chapters on Indian art, by which Aurobindo means architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, and drama, he answers the charge often made by Westerners that Indian art is not “realistic.” Aurobindo points out that much of the inspiration behind Western art is outward life and external nature, whereas the purpose of Indian art is to disclose through symbols some aspect of the infinite divine self.
Of the five chapters that survey three thousand years of Indian literature, Aurobindo devotes the first three chapters to the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the two heroic epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Vedic poetry is distinguished by the constant awareness of the infinity and the ability to translate that into diverse imagery. The Upanishads add an intellectual, philosophical dimension that is not present in the Vedas. Aurobindo points out that the philosophy of the Upanishads can also be found in much of the most influential philosophy of the West, including that of Pythagoras, Plato, the Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and later German metaphysicists. Indeed, according to Aurobindo, there is hardly a philosophical idea of any substance that does not have its seed or authority in the varied Upanishads.
In his final essays, Aurobindo disputes the common perception that Indian culture, despite the greatness of the spiritual life it provides, has been a failure at the social, economic, and political levels. He argues that ancient India was governed wisely and well; the old system endured for a long time until invasion and conquest by foreigners combined with the decadence of the ancient culture caused it to crumble.
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In 1914, when Aurobindo first began publishing Arya, where the essays that make up The Foundations of Indian Culture first appeared, his ambitions were high. He intended the journal to reach a global audience and set out a new paradigm of human knowledge that would incorporate the heights of yogic experience. He also wished the journal to communicate his vision of the future development of humanity.
Aurobindo’s initial achievements may have been more modest. The Arya had only a limited circulation, mostly confined to India. However, although readership was small, many readers responded to Aurobindo’s words. In the aftermath of the destruction caused by World War I and the apparent soullessness of a rapidly growing industrial civilization, thoughtful young Indians saw in Aurobindo’s essays a revival of the true spirit of Indian thought, as well as deep insights into the contribution Indian spirituality could make to the modern world. Many journeyed to Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry to learn more from him.
When the essays were published in book form in 1953, they reached a much wider audience. India had recently gained its political independence from Britain and no longer had to endure the belittling of its traditions by a foreign culture.
The Foundations of Indian Culture, like the works of Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, is an outstanding exposition of the Vedantic tradition to a West that was becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of its own secular culture and was ready, at least in some quarters, to learn from the wisdom of the East.
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Bolle, Kees W. The Persistence of Religion. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1965. A study of Tantrism as a vehicle to examine India’s religious history, with a chapter on its manifestation in Aurobindo’s philosophy. It offers a different perspective of Aurobindo’s work.
Bruteau, Beatrice. Worthy Is the World: The Hindu Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. A good introduction to Aurobindo’s philosophy. It contains an interesting biography of Aurobindo’s spiritual life and a good bibliography.
Cenkner, William. The Hindu Personality in Education: Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo. Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1976. Surveys Aurobindo’s life and thought, with a focus on his writings on the problem of national education. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.
Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A concise account that attempts to give equal attention to all aspects of Aurobindo’s life: domestic, scholastic, literary, political, revolutionary, philosophical, and spiritual.
Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and a History. 4th rev. ed. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1985. A voluminous and influential—and frankly reverential—account of Aurobindo’s life and writings.
Mathur, O. P., ed. Sri Aurobindo Critical Considerations. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1997. This book provides criticism and interpretation of Aurobindo’s work. Includes examination of Aurobindo’s poetry.
Mukherjee, Jugal Kishore. Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Its Role, Responsibility, and Future Destiny, an Insider’s Personal View. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1997.
Pandit, Madhav P. Sri Aurobindo. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998. A readable account of Aurobindo’s life. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Purani, A. B. The Life of Sri Aurobindo. 3d ed. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1964. Despite its complicated organization and a devoted view, this work is perhaps the most authoritative biography of Aurobindo. It has excellent documentation of Aurobindo’s early life and is filled with quotations from Aurobindo.
Sethna, K. D. The Vision and Work of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1968. The first three chapters, in which Sethna debates with a Western philosopher via correspondence, offer a good, clear explication of Aurobindo’s philosophy. In later chapters, there is a tendency toward proselytism.
Van Vrekhem, Georges. Beyond the Human Species: The Life and Work Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 1998. An informative and interesting biography of Sri Aurobindo.