Tilak, Sri Aurobindo and India’s Independence

Tilak and Sri Aurobindo have bequeathed to us a great legacy. It is their sweat and toil, suffering and sacrifice, tapas and sadhana that have brought freedom to us. But their vision still remains unfulfilled.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo are extraordinary individuals whose glorious legacy is gratefully remembered by the people of India. Both of them worked in the political field as leaders of the freedom movement but their greatness was not confirmed to their contributions in that field alone. It extended far beyond and spanned many areas of human interest and achievement. Had India not been under the British rule, it is possible that neither Tilak nor Sri Aurobindo would have taken such keen interest in politics. Tilak is on record as having told an admirer that once India achieved freedom, he would retire from politics and take up teaching mathematics. He was essentially a scholar and fields of his research were learning and teaching. Even in the midst of hectic political activities he never gave up his active involvement in the scholarly profession. On the other hand, he was eminently successful in combining the two. In fact, for him the two were only two sides of the same life mission. His concept of politics, and of India’s freedom, was intimately associated with her cultural and philosophical heritage. Freedom had no meaning unless it was to be an expression of her Soul. That is what he meant when he said that “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”. Swaraj, according to him, was nothing but the freedom to express the distinct identity – the swatva — of the nation. He was one of the most authentic exponents of the Swatva of India. Through his voluminous writings and lectures he incessantly engaged in bringing out and propagating among the masses what India stood for and why she should win her freedom from the crushing and benumbing bondage which incapacitated her from genuine self-expression. Even his political programmes like Swadeshi and socio-cultural activities like Ganesh Utsav and Shivaji festival were calculated to instil the same noble sentiments.
One trait Tilak shared with Sri Aurobindo is that Ahimsa or non-violence is not an unconditional creed that should be placed above the freedom of India. In this they differed from Mahatma Gandhi. It’s remarkable that all three – Tilak, Gandhiji and Sri Aurobindo – looked to the Bhagavat Gita for inspiration.
While Gandhiji interpreted the Gita in support of his views on Ahimsa, Tilak and Sri Aurobindo derived from the same scripture inspiration for action – even violent action – based on yoga, equanimity of mind. Both of them were in deep sympathy with the revolutionaries of the freedom movement. They were leaders of the so-called extremist faction of the Congress, as distinct from the moderates. Both of them believed that a nation forcibly occupied and enslaved has the right to attain freedom by every possible means.

Both Tilak and Sri Aurobindo were sent to prison for their alleged involvement in the politics of violence. Tilak used his seven-year term in the prison at Mandalay to write the commentary on the Gita, his magnum opus – Gita Rahasya. Sri Aurobindo immersed himself in the practice of yoga as prescribed by the Gita and attained the highest Realisation that “all is pervaded by the Divine (Vasudeva Sarvam iti)”.
Tilak looked upon the suffering imposed upon him in prison as necessary and, therefore, welcomed it. His attitude is clearly reflected in the statement.
All I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.
For Sri Aurobindo, life in Alipore prison was a period of sadhana, and spiritual transformation. The transformation that came over him has been brought out in the famous Uttarapara speech:
…It was while I was walking that His strength again entered into me. I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of myself but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me his shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover. This was the first use of the deeper vision He gave me. I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and as I looked at them I saw Vasudeva, it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies.
While Tilak re-entered politics and provided dynamic leadership for the freedom movement till he passed away, Sri Aurobindo’s active political life came to an abrupt end with his imprisonment. Soon he left for Pondicherry where he took up the life of a yogi along with extensive writings. He lived in seclusion in the ashram at Pondicherry till he passed away in 1950. Though outwardly silent, these 40 years of his life were the most productive, because it is during this period that he spelt out his mission and laid the foundation for its achievement. His withdrawal from active politics was not an act of escapism nor was it the result of his disgust with politics. Before he left for Pondicherry, he was convinced that his role in active politics was over and that the independence of India was a foregone conclusion. But he had his own misgivings as to whether the national psyche and the leaders that be were clear in their ideas about the kind of freedom that was going to ushered in. He was firmly convinced that India was becoming free for fulfilling a distinct mission, which no other country in the world was capable of. India had not only a national mission to fulfil, but a global one also. But that is possible only if India herself evolves spiritually and manifests it in her collective life. She has to evolve a paradigm of self-expression based on her spiritual and cultural heritage. Sri Aurobindo realised from personal experience that the kind of politics that was being practiced and the kind of ideas that were sought to be put into practice were imperfect instruments for the great and glorious role India had to achieve. The gulf had to be bridged. A new path had to be made. India had no model to follow. She had to carve out one for herself, in the light of her inner spiritual experience. Otherwise, freedom would be meaningless and unworthy. It was this realisation that took him to Pondicherry, where in voluntary seclusion he wanted to work out the details of true independence and also the way to achieve it. His yoga in Pondicherry included voluminous creative writings on all the fundamental questions of individual and collective existence. They were outpourings from the pen of a realised soul, eager to show the right path to evolving humanity.
Even in Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo never failed to keep himself in constant touch with the political developments that were taking place. He used to share his thoughts with his intimate disciples and there were even occasions where he personally intervened to give the right turn to Indian politics. When finally India became free Sri Aurobindo sent out a message to the nation not only welcoming the historic event, but also expressing his feelings about the unfortunate partition of the country. He was firmly of the view that the vivisection of India was only a transitory arrangement and that ultimately “partition of India must go, it will go”. Sri Aurobindo’s message is a classical piece which is read and re-read by millions of people again and again because it is a stirring call for action by all those who believe in India’s destiny as the guiding light to humanity. The message clearly enunciates one after another the various dreams he was born with, all of which were to be brought into fruition by the children of Independent India, beginning from undoing India’s partition to the supramental evolution of humanity – these are the steps leading to human perfection in which India is destined to play her decisive and distinct role.
Both Tilak and Sri Aurobindo have bequeathed to us a great legacy. It is their sweat and toil, suffering and sacrifice, tapas and sadhana that have brought freedom to us. But their vision still remains unfulfilled.

​(Extracts from the book Heart-Beats of the Hindu Nation by P Parameswaran.)