The Bhagavadgita, Pistol, and the Lone Bhadralok: Individual Spirituality, Masculinity, and Politics in the Nationalist Writings of Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950)

Article excerpt

This article examines the nationalist writings and agenda of the revolutionary turned monk Aurobindo Ghose (18721950), who consolidated the cult of the motherland with the politics of a virile masculine resistance to British colonialism. Aurobindo was the first significant political leader to formulate an agenda for direct political action on spiritual (Hindu) principles. The most portrayed and at times caricatured figure of the early twentieth century "Swadeshi" revolutionary was a young (upper-caste and middle-class) Hindu male who carries a pistol and a copy of the Bhagavadgita in his two pockets. And Aurobindo's writings and speeches were the direct inspiration behind this figure. The extremists' strong and addictive ideals of self-sacrifice (atmotsarga) and devotion towards nation (deshabhakti) retained their significance long after "armed struggle" declined in influence in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent "satyagraha."


"Our history is the sacred biography of the Mother. Our philosophies are the revelations of the Mother's mind. ... Our religion is the organized expression of the soul of the Mother. The outsider knows her as India." Bipin Chandra Pal (2)

"Nationalism is not a mere political programme; Nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed in which you will have to live. ... Have you realised that you are merely the instruments of God, that your bodies are not your own? ... If you have realized that, then alone you will be able to restore this great nation." Aurobindo Ghose (3)

This article explores the deployment of spirituality in Indian nationalist militancy in the first decade of the twentieth century. A strategic conflation of violence and spirituality took place in the figure of the "Indian Nationalist" at the turn of the twentieth century, and the Swadeshi movement in Bengal (1903-08) was the new formula's first testing ground. The radical young "Swadeshi" leader was far removed from the self-scrutinizing reformer, educator, and social activist of the nineteenth century; he (I use the pronoun consciously, as the leaders were almost exclusively male) had little interest in either social or economic reform. He was the prophet of a new religion: the worship and service of "motherland." It was this new ideal that stormed and eventually overcame the Indian National Congress--established in 1885 and operating hitherto as a mirror to the British parliamentary process--and radicalized it into a fully functional and virile national party. The dramatic shift occurred in the (in)famous 1907 session of the Indian National Congress in Surat, when the incredibly Anglicized and "civil" proceedings headed by the elderly members of the Congress--including PherozeShah Mehta and Surendranath Bannerjee was interrupted by a group of young radicals, and the Indian nationalist political stage was divided overnight into two camps: the "moderates" and the "extremists." The extremists' strong and addictive ideals of self-sacrifice (atmotsarga) and devotion towards nation (deshabhakti) retained their significance long after "armed struggle" declined in influence in the wake of Gandhi's non-violent "satyagraha." Focusing on the political writings and speeches of one of the pioneer "extremist" leaders--Aurobindo Ghose--I revisit the crucial turning point in Indian nationalism where the rhetoric of armed "revolution" and the requisite "self-sacrifice" began to be infused into the political language of the day, colored by the new religiosity of the motherland ideal. The Indian National Congress rebounded from its extremist zeal to "non-violence" under Gandhi's leadership, and evolved past its short revolutionary phase into an organized mainstream political party capable of official bargain and campaign. In spite of this dramatic shift, the Congress retained the Swadeshi spiritual core of its political program, through its entire phase of civil disobedience. …


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