Editor’s note: These selections are from one of Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali writings published in ‘Dharma‘, No. 6, September, 1909, under the title ‘The Problem of the Past’. Here he gives us a comprehensive and deeper understanding of the principal reasons why the mighty India could be easily conquered by the British. The editors have made a few formatting changes for easier online reading, without altering the text in any way.
The conquest of India by the English is an unparalleled achievement in the history of the world. If this immense country were inhabited by a nation, weak and ignorant, inapt and uncivilised, then such a statement could not have been made.
On the contrary, India is the native country of the Rajputs, the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Pathans, the Moguls and others. The Bengalis with their quick intelligence, the thinkers from South India, the politician Brahmins from Maharashtra are children of Mother India. . . In the eighteenth century, the Indians were not inferior to any other nation in power, courage or intelligence.
India of the eighteenth century was the temple of Saraswati, the treasury of Lakshmi and the playground for Shakti.
Yet the country which the mighty Muslims, constantly growing in power, took hundreds of years to conquer with the greatest difficulty and could never rule over in perfect security, that very country in the course of fifty years willingly admitted the sovereignty of a handful of English merchants and within a century went into an inert sleep under the shadow of their paramount empire. You might say, it was the result of the want of unity.
We admit that the lack of unity is truly one of the principal reasons of our misfortune but then there was never any unity in India even in the past. There was no unity in the age of the Mahabharata nor in the time of Chandragupta or Ashoka. There was no unity during the period of the Muslim conquest of India or in the eighteenth century. The lack of unity could not be the exclusive reason for such a miracle to happen.
If you say that the virtues of the English are the reason then I would ask those who know the history of that period whether they would venture to say that the English merchants of that epoch were superior to the Indians either in virtue or in merit.
It is difficult to suppress laughter when we hear some one talking of the great qualities of those devils, cruel and powerful, selfish and avaricious,—Clive, Warren Hastings and others, English merchants and robbers who by plundering and conquering India, have given to the world not only examples of incomparable bravery, labour and pride but also examples of unsurpassable wickedness.
Courage, labour and pride are virtues of the Asuras, their good points. Clive and other Englishmen also possessed them. But their vices were in no way less than the vices of the Indians. Therefore the virtues of the English did not accomplish this miracle.
From our archives:
Sri Aurobindo, the Revolutionary Nationalist
Battle between Asuras
The English and the Indians both were equally Asuras. It was not a battle between the Gods and the Asuras but a fight of the Asuras against the Asuras.
What was the sublime quality of the Occidental Asura which crowned with success his power, courage and intelligence? And what was the fatal defect of the Indian Asura which nullified his power, courage and intelligence?
The answer is, in the first place, that though the Indians were equal to the English in all qualities, they did not have any national feeling whereas the English possessed it to the full. From this it must not be hastily concluded that the English were patriotic, and that it was patriotism which inspired them to build up successfully a vast empire in India.
Patriotism and National Consciousness
Patriotism and national consciousness are two different qualities. The patriot lives in a rapture of service to the motherland; he perceives her everywhere, looks upon her as a godhead, and to her offers all work done as a sacrifice for the good of the country; his own interest merges in the interest of the country.
The English of the eighteenth century did not have this feeling as it cannot abide permanently in the heart of any Occidental materialist nation. The English did not come to India for the good of their country. They came here to do business, to make money for themselves. Not out of love for their country did they conquer or pillage India but they conquered it mainly in their own interest.
However, without being patriots, they had the national feeling;
- the pride that “our country is the best, the traditions and customs, religion, character, morality, strength, courage, intelligence, opinion and work of our nation are inimitably perfect, unattainable by others”;
- the belief that “the good of my country is my good, the glory of my country is my glory, the prosperity of my fellow countrymen is my prosperity;
- instead of seeking only personal ends, I shall advance at the same time the interest of my nation;
- it is the duty of every one in the country to fight for her honour, glory and prosperity;
- it is the religion of the hero, if need be, to die bravely in that fight”; this sense of duty exhibits the main characteristic of the national consciousness.
Patriotism is in its nature sattwic, whereas the national consciousness is rajasic. One who can lose his ego in the ego of the country is the ideal patriot; one who aggrandises the ego of the country, all the while maintaining intact his own ego is a nationally conscious individual.
The Indians of that epoch were wanting in national consciousness.
We do not mean to say that they never cared for the good of their nation, but if there was the least conflict between their personal interest and that of the country, they often sacrificed the good of the country to achieve their own. According to us, the lack of national consciousness was a more fatal defect than the lack of unity.
If full national consciousness spread everywhere in the country, then unity could be realised even in this land afflicted with division. Mere verbal repetition, “We want unity, we want unity!” is not sufficient. This is the principal reason of the conquest of India by the British.
The Asuras fought against the Asuras; but the nationally conscious and unified Asuras defeated the Asuras equal to them in all other qualities but disunited and devoid of national consciousness.
According to the Divine law, one who is strong and efficient wins the wrestling contest; one who is fast and enduring arrives first at the destination. High moral qualities or merits alone cannot make one win a race or wrestling bout; the necessary strength is indispensable.
Thus even a wicked and Asuric nation, conscious of itself, is able to found an empire, while for want of national consciousness a virtuous people possessing many high moral qualities loses its independence, and eventually forfeiting its noble character and good qualities falls into decadence.
A Greater Truth
From the political point of view this explains best how India was conquered. But there is a greater truth hidden behind it.
We have already mentioned that tamasic ignorance and rajasic impulse had become very predominant in India. This state precedes a downfall. Concentration on the rajasic quality increases the rajasic power; but pure rajas soon changes into tamas. Arrogant and disorderly rajasic endeavour soon gets tired and exhausted and finally degenerates into impotence, dejection and inactivity.
The rajasic power can become durable if it is turned towards sattwa.
In the absence of the sattwic nature, at least a sattwic ideal is indispensable; that ideal imparts order and a steady strength to the rajasic power.
The English always cherished these two great sattwic ideals, order and liberty, which have made them great and victorious in the world. In the nineteenth century this nation was seized by the desire to do good to others, and thanks to it, England rose to the summit of national grandeur.
Moreover, the insatiable thirst for knowledge, which drove the Europeans to make hundreds of scientific discoveries and people by the hundred to lay down their lives willingly in order to gain even a drop of knowledge, that strong sattwic yearning for knowledge was active among the English. It was this sattwic power from which the English drew their strength; their supremacy, courage and force are diminishing, and fear, discontent and lack of self-confidence are on the increase because the sattwic power is waning; the rajasic power having lost its sattwic aim is sliding into tamas.
On the other hand, the Indians were a great sattwic nation.
It was because of this sattwic power that they became incomparable in knowledge, courage and in spite of their disunity were able to resist and throw back foreign attacks for a thousand years. Then began the increase of rajas and the decrease of sattwa.
At the time of the Muslim advent, the widespread knowledge had already begun to shrink and the Rajputs who were predominantly rajasic occupied the throne of India. Northern India was in the grip of wars and internal quarrels and, owing to a decadence of Buddhism, Bengal was overcast with tamas. Spirituality sought refuge in South India and by the grace of that sattwic power South India was able to retain her freedom for a long time.
Yearning for knowledge, progress of knowledge slowly declined; instead, erudition was more and more honoured and glorified; spiritual knowledge, development of yogic power and inner realisation were mostly replaced by tamasic religious worship and observance of rajasic ceremonies to gain worldly ends; when the cult of the four great orders of society disappeared, people began to attach more importance to outward customs and actions.
From our archives:
What Makes a Nation Immortal?
Such an extinction of the national dharma had brought about the death of Greece, Rome, Egypt and Assyria; but the Aryan race which held the ancient religion was saved by the rejuvenating flow of heavenly nectar which gushed from time to time from the ancient source. Shankara, Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Nanak, Ramdas and Tukaram brought back to life a moribund India by sprinkling her with that divine nectar.
The Strong Current of Rajas and Tamas
However, the current of rajas and tamas was so strong that by its pull, even the best were altered into the worst; common people began to justify their tamasic nature with the knowledge given by Shankara; the cult of love revealed by Chaitanya became a cover for extreme tamasic inactivity; the Marathas who were taught by Ramdas, forgot their Maharashtrian dharma, wasted the power in selfish pursuits and internal conflicts and destroyed the kingdom founded by Shivaji and Bajirao.
In the eighteenth century this current attained its maximum force.
Society and religion were confined within narrow limits as ordained by a few modern law-givers; the pomp of outward rites and ceremonies came to be designated as religion; with the Aryan knowledge vanishing and the Aryan character dying, the ancient religion abandoned society and took shelter in the forest-life of the Sannyasi and in the heart of the devotee.
India was then enveloped in the thickest darkness of tamas, yet a stupendous rajasic impulse under the cloak of an outward religion relentlessly pursued vile and selfish ends, bringing ruin to the nation and the country. Power was not lacking in the country, but owing to the eclipse of the Aryan dharma and of sattwa, that power unable to defend itself, brought about its own destruction.
Finally, the Asuric power of India vanquished by the Asuric power of Britain became shackled and lifeless.
India plunged into an inert sleep of tamas. Obscurity, unwillingness, ignorance, inaction, loss of self-confidence, sacrifice of self-respect, love of slavery, emulation of foreigners and adoption of their religion, dejection, self-depreciation, pettiness, indolence, etc. all these are characteristic qualities of the tamas. Which of these was lacking in nineteenth century India? Each and every endeavour of that century, because of the predominance of these qualities, bore everywhere the seal of the tamasic force.
When God Roused India
When God roused India, in the first flush of her awakening the flaming power of the national consciousness began to flow swiftly in the veins of the nation.
At the same time, a maddening emotion of patriotism enraptured the youth. We are not Europeans, we are Asiatics. We are Indians, we are Aryans. We have gained the national consciousness but unless it is steeped in patriotism our national consciousness cannot blossom. Adoration of the Mother must be the foundation of that patriotism.
The day “Bande Mataram”, the song of Bankimchandra, crossed the barrier of the outer senses and knocked at the heart, on that day patriotism was born in our heart; on that day the Mother’s image was enshrined in our heart.
The country is Mother, the country is Divine,—this sublime precept which forms a part of the Upanishadic teachings is the seed of the national rising.
As the “Jiva” is a part of the Divine, as the power of the “Jiva” is also a part of the Divine power, so also the collectivity of. . . Indians are part of all-pervading Vasudeva; in the same manner, Mother India, adorned with many hands and powers, shelter of these. . . millions, embodiment of Shakti, is a force of the Divine Mother, the Goddess, the very body of the universal Mahakali. . .
. . the ancient power of the Aryans has to be resurrected.
First, the Aryan character and the Aryan education must reappear; secondly, the yogic power has to be developed again; lastly, that yearning for knowledge, that capacity for work worthy of an Aryan must be utilised in order to assemble necessary material for the new age. . .
The Aryan Ideal of Courage
Young men all over the country, who are seeking a path and looking for work, let them get over the passion and find out a means for acquiring power. The sublime work that has to be accomplished cannot be achieved by passion alone; strength is necessary.
The force that can be acquired from the teachings of your ancestors can do the impossible. That Force is preparing to descend into your body. That Force is the Mother Herself. Learn to surrender to Her. The Mother by making you Her instrument will accomplish the work so swiftly, so powerfully that the world will be astounded. All your efforts will come to nothing without that Force.
The image of the Mother is enshrined in your heart, you have learnt to serve and adore the Mother; now surrender to the Mother within you. There is no other way to accomplish the work.
~ Sri Aurobindo, “Dharma”, No. 6, September, 1909
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