Aurobindo about Advaita

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 14 22:03:53 UTC 1999

Edwin Bryant <ebryant at FAS.HARVARD.EDU> wrote:

>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.
Quite so. Notice however, that many pundits would have also followed the
sarvadarSanasangraha in putting advaitavedAnta at the top of a hierarchy of
darSanas. And for different reasons than those dictated by the nationalist
agenda. One should also be aware of various kinds of traditional pundits.
Within the Smarta fold, pundits were free to offer their own interpretations
of vedAnta, many differing from Sankara, but still remaining advaitic in
import. Those born into Madhva or Srivaishnava families would naturally have
opted for their own respective leaders.

>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.

It is my impression that many 19th c. nationalists actually wanted to deny
the plethora of religious expression in the subcontinent. It was achieved in
a variety of ways - some practices were simply denounced as "superstition,"
others were reinterpreted as referring to yogic experiences (even if they
were not) and yet others were wished away under the "ekam sat, viprAH
bahudhA vadanti" argument. While granting that a number of issues were in
serious need of reform, the biggest problem confronting them was still that
of "idol worship." If Rammohan Roy offered a solution through the syncretism
of the Brahmo Samaj, Dayananda called for going back to the Vedas, and
Aurobindo offered his version of yoga.

It seems to me that many of the nationalists consciously or unconsciously
bought the theory of the white man's burden. Many Indians probably continue
to do so. It is still very common to see quotations of what so-and-so said
about some Indian personality in Indian publications. It just so happens
that the so-and-so is invariably a Westerner. Earlier, it used to be Max
Muller or William Jones. Nowadays it is Frawley or Elst. The more things
change, the more they seem to remain the same!

>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).

This would be truer of Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Math and Mission than
of the motivations of the generic nationalist. Whichever way you look at it,
in Vivekananda's case, the preference for advaita was motivated primarily by
a need to interpret the range of religious expression that one individual,
Ramakrishna, is said to have experienced. The only other choice would have
been "tantrism," but that often came with unsavory baggage. It was primarily
psychological for him, but with social or political implications.

>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?

I should think that the two are not mutually exclusive. Something that is
often overlooked is the direct and indirect influence of Theosophy on the
English educated Indian elite of the 19th century. You just have to see the
choice of words (and the quaint capitalization) in English translations made
by Indian authors to see how widespread this was. Annie Besant's role in the
rise of Indian nationalism should be given its due too.

>Aurobindo's comment is of interest in
>this regard.  Again, I am just sharing unresearched preliminary thoughts
>here.  Edwin Bryant

As far as Aurobindo is concerned, one must remember that he had his own
peculiar interpretation of the upanishads. He was indebted to Darwinian
evolution theory in many ways. As such, his was an alternative vision that
competed with traditional vedAnta. And as always, whatever one's own
interpretation of vedAnta may be, one can argue for Sankara or against
Sankara, but one simply cannot ignore Sankara. Aurobindo's comment has to be
viewed against this background. And to me, that in itself shows how
important, if not authoritative or representative, advaita vedAnta continues
to be.


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