Bepin Chandra Pal
Sri Aurobindo

- A PORTRAIT OF 1909 -

Bepin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), an Indian nationalist leader, was considered by Sri Aurobindo at one time to be «the best and most original political thinker in the country, an excellent writer and magnificent orator». He was one of the prominent leaders of the nationalist movement in Bengal, belonging to the militant extremist section of the Congress and working in cooperation with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lal Lajpat Rai, and Sri Aurobindo. He took a leading part in organising the movement against the partition of Bengal in 1905, and popularised the concepts of “Swadeshi”. For refusing to give evidence in the prosecution of Bande Mataram case, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

In 1918 an editor published a book of sketches of leading Indian personalities by Bepin Chandra Pal. Among them was a piece of Sri Aurobindo, written in England in 1909, before Sri Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry. We reproduce here extracts from the sketch exactly as it was published. Its special value lies in the fact that it was one of the earlies sketches ever written on Sri Aurobindo, revealing the perspective from which he was seen and understood in those early days.


«The youngest in age among those who stand in the forefront of the Nationalist propaganda in India, but in endowment, education, and character, perhaps, superior to them all — Aravinda seems distinctly marked out by Providence to play in the future of his movement a part not given to any of his colleagues and contemporaries. The other leaders of the movement have left their life behind them: Aravinda has his before him. Nationalism is their last love: it is Aravinda’s first passion. They are burdened with the cares and responsibilities of large families or complex relations: Aravinda has a small family and practically no cumulative obligations. His only care is for his country — the mother, as he always calls her. His only recognised obligations are to her. Nationalism, at the best, a concern of the intellect with some, at the lowest a political cry and aspirations with others, is with Aravinda a supreme passion of his soul. Few, indeed, have grasped the full force and meaning of the Nationalist ideal as Aravinda has done. But even of these very few — though their vision may be clear, their action is weak. Man cannot, by a fiat of his will at once recreate his life. Our Karma follows us with relentless insistence from day to day and from death to death. To see the vision of truth and yet not to be possessed by the supreme passion for it which burns up all other desires and snaps asunder, like ashen bands, all other ties and obligations — this is the divine tragedy of most finer natures. They have to cry out which St.Paul at every turn of life’s tortuous path — “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” But blessed are they whom this tragic antithesis between the ideal and the real has been cancelled: for whom to know the truth is to love it, to love the truth is to strive after it, and to strive after the truth is to attain it: in whom there is no disparity, either in time or degree, between the idea and its realisation: in whom the vision of the ideal, by its own intrinsic strength at once attunes every craving of the flesh, every movement of the mind, every motion of the heart, and every impulse of the will to itself: who have to strive for its realisation, not within, but without: who have to struggle not with their own Self, but with the Not-Self: who have to fight and conquer not themselves but others, in order to establish the kingdom of God, realised by them in the relations of their own inner life, in the actualities and appointments of the life of their own people or of humanity at large. These are, so to say, the chosen of God. They are born leaders of men. Commissioned to serve special ends affecting the life and happiness of large masses of men, they bear a charmed life. They may be hit, but cannot be hurt. They may be struck, but are never stricken. Their towering and the Grace of God, turn every evil into good, every opposition into help, every loss into a gain. By the general verdict of his countrymen, Aravinda stands to-day among these favoured sons of God.

Two strong currents of thoughts, ideals, and aspirations met together and strove for supremacy in Bengal, among the generation to which Aravinda’s parents belonged. One was a current of Hindu Nationalism — of the revived life, culture and ideals of the nation that had lain dormant for centuries and had been discarded as lower and primitive by the first batch of English-educated Hindus, specially in Bengal. The other was the current of Indo-Anglicism — the onrushing life, culture and ideals of the foreign rulers of the land, which, expressing themselves through British law and administration on the one side, and the new schools and universities on the other, threatened to swamp and drown the original culture and character of the people. The two stocks from which Aravinda sprang represented these two conflicting forces in the country. His maternal grandfather, Raj Narain Bose was one of the makers of modern Bengal. A student of David Hare, a pupil of De Rozario, an alumnus of the Hindu College, the first English college that had the support of both the Hindu community and the British rulers of the Province, Raj Narain Bose started life as a social and religious reformer. But while he caught as fully as any one else among his contemporaries, the impulse of the new illumination, he did not lose so completely as many of them did, his hold on the fundamental spirit of the culture and civilisazion of his race. He joined the Brahmo Samaj, under Maharishi Debendra Nath Tagore, but felt repelled by the denationalistic spirit of the later development under Keshub Chunder Sen. In fact, it is difficult to say, to which of its two leaders — Debendra Nath or Raj Narain, the Adi or the older Brahmo-Samaj, as it came to be called after Keshub Chander Sen seceded from it and established the Brahmo-Samaj of India — was more indebted for its intense and conservative nationalism. But it may be safely asserted that while Debendra Nath’s nationalism had a dominating theological note, Raj Narain’s had both a theological and social, as well as a political emphasis. In him it was not merely the spirit of Hinduism that rose up in arms against the onslaught of European Christianity, but the whole spirit of Indian culture and manhood stood up to defend and assert itself against every form of undue foreign influence and alien domination. While Keshub Chunder Sen pleaded for the recognition of the truths in the Hindu scriptures side by side with those of the Bible, Raj Narain Bose proclaimed the superiority of Hinduism to Christianity. While Keshub Chunder was seeking to reconstruct Indian, and especially Hindu, social life, more or less after the British model, Raj Narain’s sturdy patriotism and national self-respect rebelled against the enormity, and came forward to establish the superiority of Hindu social economy to the Vhristian social institutions and ideals. He saw the on-rush of European goods into Indian markets, and tried to stem the tide by quickening what we would now call the Swadeshi spirit, long before any one else had thought of it. It was under his inspiration that a Hindu Mela or National Exhibition was started a full quarter of a century before the Indian National Congress thought of an Indian Industrial Exhibition. The founder of this Hindu Mela was also the first Bengalee who organised gymnasia for the physical training of the youths of the nation. Stick and sword plays, and other ancient but decadent sports and pastimes of the people that have come into vogue recently, were originally revived at the Hindu Mela under Raj Narayan Bose’s inspiration and istruction. Raj Narayan Bose did not openly take any part in politics, but his writings and speeches did a good deal to create that spirit of self-respect and self-assertion in the educated classes that have since found such strong expression in our recent political activities. A strong conservatism, based upon a reasoned appreciation of the lofty spirituality of the ancient culture and civilisation of the country; a sensitive patriotism, born of a healthy and dignified pride of race; and a deep piety expressing itself through all the varied practical relations of life — these were the characteristics of the life and thought of Raj Narayan Bose. He represented the high-water-mark of the composite culture of his country — Vedantic, Islamic, and European. When he discoursed on Brahma-Jnan or knowledge of God, he brought to mind the ancient Hindu gnostics of the Upanishads. When he cited verses from the Persian poets, filling the ear with their rich cadence — with his eyes melting in love and his mobile features aglow with a supreme spiritual passion — he reminded one of the old Moslem devotees. And when he spoke on the corruptions of current religion, or the soulless selfishness of modern politics, he appeares as a nineteenth century nationalist and iconoclast of Europe. In his mind and life he was at once a Hindu Maharshi, a Moslem Shafi, and a Christian theist of the Unitarian type; and like Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of the Brahmo-Samaj of which Raj Narayan Bose was for many years the honoured president, he also seems to have worked out a synthesis in his own spiritual life between the three dominant world-cultures that have come face to face in modern India. Like Ram Mohan, Raj Narayan also seems to have realised himself, intellectually and spiritually, that ideal of composite nationhood in India, which the present generation has been called upon t actualise in social, economic and political relations of their country. Raj Narayan Bose was also an acknowledged leader in Bengali literature. A writer in the “Modern Review” (Calcutta) calls Raj Narayan Bose “The grandfather of Indian Nationalism;” He was Aravinda’s maternal grandfather; and Aravinda owes not only his rich spiritual nature but even his very superior literary capacity to his inherited endowments from his mother’s line.

If his maternal grandfather represented the ancient spiritual forces of his nation, Aravinda’s father, Dr. Krista Dhan Ghose, represented to a very large extent the spirit of the new illumination in his country. Dr. Ghose was essentially a product of English education and European culture. A man of exceptional parts, he finished his education in England and taking his degree in medicine, entered the medical service of the Indian Government. He was one of the most succellful Civil Surgeons of his day, and, had his life been spared, he would have assuredly risen to the highest position in his service open to any native of India. Like the general body of Indian young men who came to finish their education in England in his time, Krista Dhan Ghose was steeped in the prevailing spirit of Anglicism. Like all of them he was a thoroughly Anglicised Bengalee, in his ways of life. But unlike many of them, underneath his foreign clothing and ways he has a genuine Hindu heart and soul. Anglicism distorts Hindu character, cripples, where it cannot kill, the inherited altruism of the man, and makes him more or less neglectful of the numerous family and social obligations under which every Hindu is born. Like the original Ango-Saxon, his Indian imitation also lives first and foremost for himself, his wife and children; and though he may recognise the claims of his relations to his charity, he scarcely places his purse at their service as an obligation. But Krista Dhan Ghose was an exception. Though he affected the European ways of living, he never neglected the social obligation of the Hindu. His purse was always open for his needy relations. The poor of the town, where he served and lived, had in him a true friend and a ready help. In fact, his regard for the poor frequantly led him to sacrifice to their present needs the future prospects of his own family and children. He had his sons educated in England; and so great was his admiration for English life and English culture that he sent out here even before they had received any schooling in their country. But his charities met such constant and heavy inroads into his tolerably large income that he could not always keep his own children livin in England provided with sufficient funds for their board and schooling. Sons of comparatively rich parents they were brought up almost in abject poverty in a friendless country where wealth counts so much, not only physically, but also intellectually and morally. Keen of intellect, tender of heart, impulsive and generous almost to recklessness regardless of his own ones, but sensitive to the sufferings of others — this was the inventory of the character of Dr. Krista Dhan Ghose. The rich blamed him for his recklessness, the man of the world condemned him for his absolute lack of prudence, the highest virtue in his estimation. But the poor, the widow and the orphan loved him for his selfless pity, and his soulful benevolence. When death overtook him in the very prime of life there was desolation in many a poor home in his district. It not only left his own children in absolute poverty, but destroyed the source of ready relief to many helpless families among his relations and neighbours. His quick intellectual perception, his large sympathies, his selflessness, characterised by an almost absolute lack of what the man of the world always working with an eye to the main chance, calls prudence, as a matter of personal calculation, — these are Aravinda’s inheritance in his father’s line.

A new paper was started. Aravinda was invited to join its staff. A joint-stock company was shortly floated to run it, and Aravinda became one of the directors. This paper — “Bande Mataram” — at once secured for itself a recognised position in Indian journalism. The hand of the master was in it, from the very beginning. Its bold attitude, its vigorous thinking, its clear ideas, its chaste and powerful diction, its scorching sarcasm and refined witticism, were unsurpassed by any journal in the country, either Indian or Anglo-Indian. It at once raised the tone of every Bengali paper, and compelled the admiration of even hostile Anglo-Indian editors. Morning after morning, not only Calcutta but the educated community almost in every part of the country, eagerly awaited its vigorous pronouncements on the stirring question of the day. It even forced itself upon the notice of the callous and self-centred British press. Long extracts from it commenced to be reproduced week after week even in the exclusive columns of the “Times” in London. It was a force in the country which none dared to ignore, however much they might fear or hate it, and Aravinda was the leading spirit, the central figure, in the new journal. The opportunities that were denied him in the National College he found in the pages of the “Bande Mataram,” and from a tutor of a few youths he thus became the teacher of a whole nation.»