Aurobindo about Advaita

Edwin Bryant ebryant at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Jun 14 16:09:44 UTC 1999

On Sun, 13 Jun 1999, Vidyasankar Sundaresan wrote:

> Robert Zydenbos <zydenbos at BIGFOOT.DE> wrote:
> >Seeing that some of the list members have been reading Aurobindo,
> >someone may help me with a reference. I was told that has written
> >somewhere that the prominence that is given to Advaitavedanta is not
> >the result of a natural development in Indian philosophy, but due to
> >the interest given in that school of thought by Western authors.
> Don't you think that this statement is more representative of the typical
> 19th century Bangla Babu than of the traditional pundits who were interested
> in Indian philosophies?

I wonder about this, but have yet to research this point which interests
me. It would seem to me that more traditional pundits would be better
aware of the variety of Vedantic traditions -- particularly those of
Ramanuja and Madhva -- and less likely to represent Sankara as
monolithically representative and authoritative in Vedantic thought.  My
own working (and as yet unresearched) hypothesis is that it might have
been some of the 'Bengali Babus' who coopted Advaitavad into their
discourses because it better served nationalist agendas. I wonder whether
on the whole (and I'm using broad brush strokes here since obviously one
cannot lump all 'Bengali babus' into one generic category), many of them
were *less* interested in the minutiae of the history of Indic Philosophy
(after all Sankara was opposed by many other schools and darsanas, not
just the later Vedantins), but that some nationalists found this
particular type of monistic metaphysics most suitable for nationalist

Here's my tentative reasoning: the Brits were claiming that their presence
was necessary since if they left the subcontinent would disintegrate into
sectarian chaos.  Some nationalists felt that they needed a rubric that
would recognize the de facto plethora of religious expressions on the
subcontinent, but subsume it onto some kind of a unity.  Advaitavad
accomplishes this with some efficiency (ie Sankara's preference for the Up
verses stating that all rivers lead to the sea, the sap from different
insects merges into a generic sap, etc). Other traditions -- Vaishnavite
in particular -- were more exclusivistic, confrontational and sectarian in
their truth claims.

Of course, the western interest in Sankara and other factors may also have
been strong impetuses for the excessive success Advaitvad has enjoyed in
representations of Hindu philosophy, but I wonder to what extent the
nationalist imperative did as well?  Aurobindo's comment is of interest in
this regard.  Again, I am just sharing unresearched preliminary thoughts
here.  Edwin Bryant

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