The thirty-two essays that make up this book were first published in the monthly journal Arya between August 1918 and January 1921. They constitute a defence of Indian civilisation and culture, with essays on Indian spirituality, religion, art, literature, and polity.
The first series of four essays appeared in 1918 under the title “The Renaissance in India” and was formulated as an appreciation of James H. Cousins’ book of the same title. Sri Aurobindo explains that a renaissance in India means first the recovery of the past spiritual knowledge and experience in all its fullness, then the outpouring of this spirituality into new forms in all aspects of the country’s life, and lastly, an original grasp of modern problems from an Indian temperament and intellect. The second essay, “Indian Culture and External Influence”, was written in 1919 in answer to a comment published in a Bengali journal on “The Renaissance in India” series.
In the next group of three essays, titled “Is India Civilised”, Sri Aurobindo began with an appreciative review of Sir John Woodroffe’s book of the same title, followed by a rebuttal of the hostile criticisms made by William Archer in India and the Future, and concluded with his own estimation of India’s civilisation and culture. The last series, “A Defence of Indian Culture”, was undertaken as a more detailed reply to the work of William Archer, which criticised and attacked Indian culture and civilisation in all it domains. At that time, Archer’s views were considered typical of a general attitude of the European mind towards the Indian civilisation. Sri Aurobindo sought to counteract these harsh criticisms and defend Indian culture by explaining the special character of India’s civilisation and her past achievements. In his view Indian culture is unique in that its high spiritual aim not only structured the core of its thought but also animated its forms and rhythms of life.
“A true happiness in this world is the right terrestrial aim of man, and true happiness lies in the finding and maintenance of a natural harmony of spirit, mind and body. A culture is to be valued to the extent to which it has discovered the right key of this harmony and organised its expressive motives and movements. And a civilisation must be judged by the manner in which all its principles, ideas, forms, ways of living work to bring that harmony out, manage its rhythmic play and secure its continuance or the development of its motives. A civilisation in pursuit of this aim may be predominantly material like modern European culture, predominantly mental and intellectual like the old Graeco-Roman or predominantly spiritual like the still persistent culture of India. India’s central conception is that of the Eternal, the Spirit here incased in matter, involved and immanent in it and evolving on the material plane by rebirth of the individual up the scale of being till in mental man it enters the world of ideas and realm of conscious morality, dharma. This achievement, this victory over unconscious matter develops its lines, enlarges its scope, elevates its levels until the increasing manifestation of the sattwic or spiritual portion of the vehicle of mind enables the individual mental being in man to identify himself with the pure spiritual consciousness beyond Mind. India’s social system is built upon this conception; her philosophy formulates it; her religion is an aspiration to the spiritual consciousness and its fruits; her art and literature have the same upward look; her whole Dharma or law of being is founded upon it. Progress she admits, but this spiritual progress, not the externally self-unfolding process of an always more and more prosperous and efficient material civilisation. It is her founding of life upon this exalted conception and her urge towards the spiritual and the eternal that constitute the distinct value of her civilisation. And it is her fidelity, with whatever human shortcomings, to this highest ideal that has made her people a nation apart in the human world.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture
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