This is the second installment in my “Reading Inayatullah” series where I review selected parts of Sohail Inayatullah’s masterpiece “Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme Macrohistory and Transformative Knowledge.”
The first one was: Reading Sohail Inayatullah (1)
In this installment I will summarize Inayatullah’s commentary on Sri Aurobindo. The author’s commentary is limited to Sri Aurobindo’s contributions to the philosophy of history.
On page 107 of this book there is a section subtitled “Aurobindo and God in History” which opens with this paragraph:
“Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), influential philosopher, activist and exemplary for our own comparative purposes in understanding the Indian construction of history, takes the Gita model of history and melds it with the Hegelian and Nietzschian models, that is, the placing of God in history and the centrality of the superman. Aurobindo begins with the idealistic view but dislodges the maya of Vedanta thus allowing a role for humans and economic/social development in history. Yet it is the Cosmic that defines history.”
And continues with
“Aurobindo asserts that ‘the history of the cycles of man is a progress towards the unveiling of the Godhead in the soul and life of humanity; each high event and stage of it is a divine manifestation’ (Varma, 1960, 34). While this establishes a grand perspective, the question remains: what form does Consciousness use to express Itself in the material world? In the Gita, the form is the individual, each person is but an instrument. Aurobindo, however, borrowing from Hegel, not only assigns instrumentality to historical individuals but also to groups, associations and collectivities. Nationalism – specifically Third World independence movements – itself now becomes part of the divine drama. It becomes an extraordinary event that represents the the will of Consciousness in creating a better human condition. Thus God for Aurobindo not only works through avatars such as Krishna but as well through nationalistic movements and other associations.”
“But if all history is the expression of the Divine, then why are some events , associations or structures privileged over others? Moreover, if creation is but Divine expression, then how is human suffering explained?”
Inayatullah’s interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s answer to this classic question is:
“At the level of collective action, it is imbalance that leads to evil, it is the ego that perhaps begins in God’s light but then goes too far. The ego becomes consumed by itself and not by any higher purpose. But ignorance leads to possibilities to learn and thus perform penances and eventually good karma might result. In this way Aurobindo redefines God’s purpose as that of learning and teaching.”
Being a physicist I find the language skills of social scientists too distracting. Most physicists have a writing style that is less discursive. Throughout the book I had difficulty following the non-linear, discursive style of the author but I have to admit that the end-result is more intellectually satisfying. Continuing with Indian answers to the classic question of how human suffering is explained:
“On this point Sarkar takes quite a different tack. Given that the real is perceived from different levels in various ways, problems arise when there is an attempt to ontologically engage in discourse-travel, understanding one level from the vantage view another. While there is a larger purpose, ultimately it is unknowable. Yet at the same time, to see history totally from the perspective of the individual (God as within the inner self, the atman-paramatman symmetry) leaves out the larger cosmic drama, forgets the role past lives in creating the present. The result is a perspective that forces one into locating purpose in family, group, community, race, nation, social group or religion – all spaces that limit and bind the intellect. In this sense Aurobindo takes a risk that Gandhi, for example, was unwilling to take. Gandhi could afford to use the divine in politics at the level of metaphor and the level of strategy, but Aurobindo as a philosopher could not do the same. He had to work out the philosophical implications for such a view. He had to work them out given his view in the absolute, his view of the Gita and his associations with various movements. But this view of Spirit in associations could not be found in Indian texts, thus his recourse to Hegel.”
“Returning to Aurobindo’s division of ignorance and knowledge, Sarkar takes a similar tactic, but defines it as vidya and avidya. Introversion and extroversion. Introversion leads to increased clarity, compassionate action that emerges from the desire for social equality. Extroversion leads to sin or misuse of the spiritual, mental and physical resources. Introversion calms the perturbations of the mind, leading to right thought and action.”
“Aurobindo believes India will lead the world in the future because of her spiritual legacy. The rise and fall of nations in the long run can be traced to their spiritual state. Its recent problems are because India has not been following her spirit adequately. From this association of the spiritual and national destiny, Aurobindo develops a theory of the rise and decline of all nations.”
“Sarkar does not locate the progressive and the good in the nation. Writing at a time when the nation-state is already established (if not declining) and indeed oppressive of minorities and individuals, Sarkar finds the the good in revolutionary cultural, linguistic, local economic movements and in spiritual globalism (in fact, in spiritual universalism).”
There is much more interesting commentary in the book comparing Sarkar’s and Aurobindo’s theories of history but I will end the second installment here.