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The Insurgent Spirit

Shruti Kapila

Edited by Peter Heehs
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 315, Rs. 995.00


On 15 August 1947, from the depths of his Ashram in Pondicherry Aurobindo sent a celebratory message across the airwaves to the free nation. He was quick to point out, however, his own place in this epoch-making historic event. ‘To me personally’, Aurobindo announced, ‘it must naturally be gratifying that this date which was notable only for me because it was my own birthday celebrated annually by those who have accepted my gospel of life, should have acquired this vast significance. As a mystic, I take this identification, not as a coincidence or fortuitous accident, but as a sanction and seal of the Divine Power which guides my steps on the work with which I began life.’   If the reader were to know only one thing about this enigmatic figure, then his opening lines of felicitation to the nation would suffice. For Aurobindo, the divine was the design of history that he self-consciously represented. The individual subject, mystic or ordinary, was not a mere instrument subject to forces, but supreme. The work of his life, though, was not always confined to the mystical charms of an ashram. By the time of Indian Independence Aurobindo had spent the best part of forty years in seclusion. In 1909, and on his way out of the public realm of political activism, Aurobindo gave his last public speech in Uttarpara. Sugata Bose, in his essay in this volume, critiques the powerful reception of that speech as an originary moment for the articulation of religious nationalism in India. ‘Speaking’ as he put it ‘with a force in’ him Aurobindo declared nationalism as not ‘political’ but a ‘religion, a creed, a faith’ (cited in Bose: 118). The mystical and the divine in the everyday, the historic and the religious in the political, the secluded and the public, the anarchic in the destined, the particular and the universal, the spirit and matter, all belong to the scrambled keywords of Aurobindo’s vast corpus of life and writings.   Best approached as a biography of disruptions, Aurobindo’s life-story intersected with and informed the modern history of India. Born in 1872 to a Calcutta-based family with Brahmo leanings and a history of service to colonial institutions, he was sent away to Manchester as a child of only seven years. Detached from and with explicit instruction of avoiding any Indian influence or context, his conversion to English ways was completed under the tutelage of an ...

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