Sri Aurobindo’s ‘A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Culture’

Date: August 16, 2023

Venue: Unity Pavilion, Auroville


Dr. Beloo Mehra, Editor, Renaissance and Senior Academic Mentor, was invited to give a talk based on Sri Aurobindo’s essays titled ‘A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Culture’. This event was organised at Unity Pavilion, Auroville as part of Auroville’s celebration of Sri Aurobindo’s birthday. The focus of the 12-day-long celebration was on Sri Aurobindo’s First Dream of a United India. 

Dr. Mehra first summarised the 6 essays by Sri Aurobindo, highlighting the key points from each. She brought out those essential ideas which have deeper connection with the work that needs to be done of realising unity within India.

She remarked that while the essays were written originally to address the points raised by a ‘foreign’ Rationalistic Critic, one who was not Indian, today the Rationalistic Critic need not be a ‘foreign’ one, because essentially it is about a certain view of reality and existence – materialistic or spiritual – which determines how one looks at Indian culture and its unique aspects. She also reminded the audience of the integral vision with which Sri Aurobindo, even when elaborating the deeply spiritual nature of Indian culture, brings to light several aspects which are not merely rational but supra-rational. 

Giving a broad overview of the six essays, Dr. Mehra highlighted the following six points in her presentation:

  • Sri Aurobindo’s Theory of Cultural criticism and Cross-cultural studies
  • Sri Aurobindo’s Unique and Integral Definition of Culture
  • Life-affirming Nature of Indian Spirituality
  • Indian Outlook on Religion
  • Indian Conception of Life
  • Individual in Social Frame

She brought out using Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions the key differences between a rationalistic-materialistic-external view of life and a spiritual-religio-philosophic-inward-turning view of life. She also gave some examples of the most common criticism of Indian cultural forms that we hear from an average rationalistic mind and explained that such criticism arises because of an essential lack of understanding of the spirit behind the outer forms. The three areas that are often the subject of a superficial rationalistic criticism are – Indian philosophy, religion and ethics. She summarised how Sri Aurobindo addressed all these criticisms thoroughly in his writings and gave relevant examples.

Dr. Mehra also spent some time explaining Sri Aurobindo’s discussion on the three broad stages of Indian civilisation’s evolutionary march. These three stages are:

  • Period of large & loose formation
    • -the early epoch of the Veda & the Upanishads, heroic creative seed-time
  • Period of fixing of forms, moulds & rhythms
    • -the Shastras & the classic writings, the age of philosophy, science, legislation, political & social theory, many-sided critical thought, religious fixation, art, sculpture, painting, architecture
  • Critical period of decay & disintegration
    • –points at which the civilisation stopped short and failed to develop its whole or its true spirit

Bringing her presentation to a conclusion, she reminded that Sri Aurobindo has given an important suggestion whenever we engage in a cross-cultural study. She read out two quotes that speak of this point:

A culture must be judged, first by its essential spirit, then by its best accomplishment and, lastly, by its power of survival, renovation and adaptation to new phases of the permanent needs of the race.

In the poverty, confusion and disorganisation of a period of temporary decline, the eye of the hostile witness refuses to see or to recognise the saving soul of good which still keeps this civilisation alive and promises a strong and vivid return to the greatness of its permanent ideal.

~ Sri Aurobindo

The presentation was followed by a Question and Answer session moderated by Mr. Lakshay Dharan. Some of the discussion focused around exploring the deeper connection of our understanding of the essence of Indian culture with the work that needs to be done of realising unity within India. Contemporary challenges to realise unity within India and coming up with new forms appropriate for expressing essential spirit of Indian culture were also discussed.

The session concluded with some general conversation about the significance of studying Sri Aurobindo’s writings and contextualising them in the light of current time-spirit and challenges. A lunch with the organising team was a befitting end to the whole session.


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