There are many secondary works which profess to explain Sri Aurobindo’s views on nationalism, but it is better to read what he himself said on the matter. These are a few selections from the works of Sri Aurobindo on Nationalism. These pieces first appeared in the Karmayogin journal in 1909. Later in life, Sri Aurobindo saw these writings as outdated remnants of his extinct political persona but to us they remain luminous milestones indicative of his political sagacity and broad vision.
Some might wonder if nationalism as well as Sri Aurobindo’s views on the topic are still relevant in an age of globalization. The march of globalization has not erased nationalism as a sociological phenomenon, just as tribal clans or family patriarchs have not yet disappeared. Human beings are so varied in their development that while some may prefer to become cosmopolitan, others continue to anchor themselves in their national, religious or native family identities. The following passages by Sri Aurobindo are imbued with a strong philosophical undercurrent which confers upon them a degree of universality and timelessness. He spoke on nationalism not just from an Indian perspective, but also as a social phenomenon.
Nationalism is an intermediate goal
3 July, 1909
(The Bengalee, a newspaper published by the Moderate Congress leader Surendranath Banerji, published an article claiming that Nationalism was the highest synthesis. Sri Aurobindo responded in the “Karmayogin” with a correction.)
In the Bengalee’s issue of the 29th June there is a very interesting article on Nationalism and Expediency, which seems to us to call for some comment. The object of the article is to modify or water the strong wine of Nationalism by a dash of expediency. Nationalism is a faith, the writer admits; he even goes much further than we are prepared to go and claims for Nationalism that it is the highest of all syntheses. This is a conclusion we are not prepared to accept; it is, we know, the highest which European thought has arrived at so far as that thought has expressed itself in the actual life and ideals of the average European. In Positivism Europe has attempted to arrive at a higher synthesis, the synthesis of humanity; and Socialism and philosophical Anarchism, the Anarchism of Tolstoy and Spencer, have even envisaged the application of the higher intellectual synthesis to life. In India we do not recognise the nation as the highest synthesis to which we can rise. There is a higher synthesis, humanity; beyond that there is a still higher synthesis, this living, suffering, aspiring world of creatures, the synthesis of Buddhism; there is a highest of all, the synthesis of God, and that is the Hindu synthesis, the synthesis of Vedanta. With us today Nationalism is our immediate practical faith and gospel not because it is the highest possible synthesis, but because it must be realised in life if we are to have the chance of realising the others. We must live as a nation before we can live in humanity. It is for this reason that Nationalist thinkers have always urged the necessity of realising our separateness from other nations and living to ourselves for the present, not in order to shut out humanity, but that we may get that individual strength, unity and wholeness which will help us to live as a nation for humanity. A man must be strong and free in himself before he can live usefully for others, so must a nation. But that does not justify us in forgetting the ultimate aim of evolution. God in the nation becomes the realisation of the first moment to us because the nation is the chosen means or condition through which we rise to the higher synthesis, God in humanity, God in all creatures, God in Himself and ourself 
Hindu nationalism would be recidivist
6 Nov, 1909
(At the time, the country was experiencing Hindu-Muslim tensions, partly fueled by the partisan British policy which favoured Muslims against Hindus. This caused another leader of the freedom struggle, Lala Lajpat Rai, to suggest that Hindu nationalism may have to be resurrected in order to counter Muslim separatists who favored a pan-Islamic identity over their Indian identity. The Hindu nationalism that Rai alluded to had been born in the earlier centuries in response to the Muslim invaders who had poured into India over the North-Western borders. Sri Aurobindo countered Lala Lajpat Rai by responding that India had to move forward by building an Indian nationalism, largely Hindu in spirit but inclusive of Muslim culture.)
Lala Lajpat Rai struck a higher note, that of Hindu nationalism as a necessary preliminary to a greater Indian Nationality. We distrust this ideal. Not that we are blind to facts,—not that we do not recognise Hindu-Mahomedan rivalry as a legacy of the past enhanced and not diminished by British ascendancy, a thing that has to be faced and worked out either by mutual concession or by a struggle between nationalism and separatism. But we do not understand Hindu nationalism as a possibility under modern conditions. Hindu nationalism had a meaning in the times of Shivaji and Ramdas, when the object of national revival was to overthrow a Mahomedan domination which, once tending to Indian unity and toleration, had become oppressive and disruptive. It was possible because India was then a world to itself and the existence of two geographical units entirely Hindu, Maharashtra and Rajputana, provided it with a basis. It was necessary because the misuse of their domination by the Mahomedan element was fatal to India’s future and had to be punished and corrected by the resurgence and domination of the Hindu. And because it was possible and necessary, it came into being. But under modern conditions India can only exist as a whole.
But the country, the swadesh, which must be the base and fundament of our nationality, is India, a country where Mahomedan and Hindu live intermingled and side by side. What geographical base can a Hindu nationality possess? Maharashtra and Rajasthan are no longer separate geographical units but merely provincial divisions of a single country. The very first requisite of a Hindu nationalism is wanting. The Mahomedans base their separateness and their refusal to regard themselves as Indians first and Mahomedans afterwards on the existence of great Mahomedan nations to which they feel themselves more akin, in spite of our common birth and blood, than to us Hindus have no such resource. For good or evil, they are bound to the soil and to the soil alone. They cannot deny their Mother, neither can they mutilate her. Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself. It is possible that the Mahomedan may not recognise the inevitable future and may prefer to throw himself into the opposite scale. If so, the Hindu, with what little Mahomedan help he may get, must win Swaraj (self-governance) both for himself and the Mahomedan in spite of that resistance .
Nationalism as a step in the enlargement of human consciousness
24 July, 1909
Self-sacrifice involuntary or veiled by forms of selfishness is, however, the condition of our existence. It has been a gradual growth in humanity. The first sacrifices are always selfish—they involve the sacrifice of others for one’s own advancement. The first step forward is taken by the instinct of animal love in the mother who is ready to sacrifice her life for the young, by the instinct of protection in the male who is ready to sacrifice his life for his mate. The growth of this instinct is the sign of an enlargement in the conception of the self. So long as there is identification of self only with one’s own body and its desires, the state of the jiva is unprogressive and animal. It is only when the self enlarges to include the mate and the children that advancement becomes possible. This is the first human state, but the animal lingers in it in the view of the wife and children as chattels and possessions meant for one’s own pleasure, strength, dignity, comfort. The family even so viewed becomes the basis of civilisation, because it makes social life possible. But the real development of the god in man does not begin until the family becomes so much dearer than the life of the body that a man is ready to sacrifice himself for it and give up his ease or even his life for its welfare or its protection. To give up one’s ease for the family, that is a state which most men have attained; to give up one’s life for the honour of the wife or the safety of the home is an act of a higher nature of which man is capable in individuals, in classes, but not in the mass.
Beyond the family comes the community and the next step in the enlargement of the self is when the identification with the self in the body and the self in the family gives way to the identification with the self in the community. To recognise that the community has a larger claim on a man than his family is the first condition of the advance to the social condition. It corresponds to the growth of the tribe out of the patriarchal family and to the perfection of those communal institutions of which our village community was a type. Here again, to be always prepared to sacrifice the family interest to the larger interest of the community must be the first condition of communal life and to give one’s life for the safety of the community, the act of divinity which marks the consummation of the enlarging self in the communal idea.
The next enlargement is to the self in the nation. The evolution of the nation is the growth which is most important now to humanity, because human selfishness, family selfishness, class selfishness having still deep roots in the past must learn to efface themselves in the larger national self in order that the God in humanity may grow. Therefore it is that Nationalism is the dharma of the age, and God reveals himself to us in our common Mother….
There is a yet higher fulfilment for which only a few individuals have shown themselves ready, the enlargement of the self to include all humanity. A step forward has been taken in this direction by the self-immolation of a few to humanitarian ideals, but to sacrifice the interests of the nation to the larger interest of humanity is an act of which humanity in the mass is not yet capable. God prepares, but He does not hasten the ripening of the fruit before its season .
Nationalism must give way to cosmopolitanism
(In 1909 when India was under British rule, Sri Aurobindo saw the assertion of Indian nationalism as the pressing need of the hour, because until India became free, Indians would not be able to grow freely according to their aspirations and indigenous traditions. At the same time, he was careful to circumscribe his call for patriotism by defining its limits; he saw nationalism as an intermediate step towards the larger goal of establishing a durable amity between nations.)
There are two stages in the life of a nation, first, when it is forming itself or new-forming itself, secondly, when it is formed, organised and powerful. The first is the stage when Nationalism makes rightly its greatest demands on the individual, in the second it should abate its demands and, having satisfied, should preserve itself in Cosmopolitanism somewhat as the individual preserves itself in the family, the family in the class, the class in the nation, not destroying itself needlessly but recognizing a larger interest. In the struggles of a subject nation to realize its separate existence, the larger interest can only be viewed in prospect and as a higher inspiration to a broadminded and generous patriotism. No sacrifice of the nation to the larger interest is possible, for the nation must exist before it can sacrifice its interests for a higher good .
- Sri Aurobindo. Karmayogin, CWSA volume 8, pp 84-85.
- ibid. pp 304-305
- ibid. pp 138-139
- ibid. pp 139-140
- Cases of reincarnation between Hindus and Muslims
- On Conservation and Progress
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2
- Subhas Chandra Bose on Sri Aurobindo
- Sri Aurobindo’s 1947 meeting with two French visitors
- Sri Aurobindo’s interaction with an American soldier during World War II
- The age of economic barbarism
- Are Indians more spiritual?
- How an Egyptian discovered Sri Aurobindo
- Mahatma Gandhi’s aborted 1934 attempt to meet Sri Aurobindo
- Reconciling Family life with Yoga
- On Atheism and Agnosticism
- Predictions of Sri Aurobindo
- Comparing Roger Penrose and Sri Aurobindo on the Mind
- Sri Aurobindo’s prose style – by Goutam Ghosal
- True family and True country
- Sri Aurobindo on lawyers
- Sufi anecdotes from Fariduddin Attar’s book Tajkerat al-Awliya
- A mystical incident in the life of Mughal Emperor Akbar
- True intent of the caste system