World War I

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(Sri Aurobindo letter to Motilal Roy, 29 August 1914:) “We recognise that immediate independence is not practicable & we are ready to defend the British rule against any foreign nation, for that means defending our own future independence.
         Therefore, if the Government accepts volunteers or favours the institution of Boy-Scouts, we give our aid, but not to be mere stretcher-bearers.
         The [Indian] leaders suggested cooperation in return for some substantial self-government. They are now offering cooperation without any return at all. Very self-sacrificing, but not political. If indeed, Govt were willing to train “thousands of young men” in military service as volunteers, Territorials or boy-scouts, whether for keeping the peace or as a reserve in case of invasion, then we need not boggle about the return. But, after so much experience, do these addle-headed politicians think the Govt.. is going to do that except in case of absolute necessity and as a choice between two evils? When will that absolute necessity come? Only if the war goes against them seriously & they have to withdraw their troops from India. I shall discuss that point later on.
         Having prefaced so much, let us look at the utility of the things offered us or offered by us.
         1. Ambulance Corps —
         The only possible utilities would be two, (1) to train two thousand young men to be steady under fire (2) to train them to act together under discipline in an easy but dangerous service. Now it is quite possible for us to create courage in our young men without these means, & I hope our best men, or let me say, our men generally do not need to become stretcher bearers in a European war in order to have the necessary nerve, courage, steadiness & discipline. If therefore an Ambulance Corps is again suggested & accepted, either refuse or let only those young men go who are enthusiastic, but still lightheaded, self-indulgent or undisciplined. Possibly, the experience may steady & discipline them. It may be necessary to let this be done, if the circumstances are such that to refuse entirely would reflect on our national courage or be interpreted as a backing out from a national engagement.
         2. Boy-Scouts — Volunteer Corps — Territorials.
         All these are entirely good, provided the police are kept at a distance, & provided officers as well as men are trained & the Govt. control is limited to the giving of military discipline in the first two cases. Even without the second proviso, any of these things would be worth accepting.
         Only in the case of volunteers going to the scene of war, you must see that we are not crippled by all our best men or even a majority being sent; only enough to bring in an element among us who have seen actual warfare –
         I think any of these things may one day become possible. Since the last year, new forces have come into the world and are now strong enough to act, which are likely to alter the whole face of the world. The present war is only a beginning not the end. We have to consider what are our chances & what we ought to do in these circumstances.
         The war is open to a certain number of broad chances.
         I. Those bringing about the destruction of the two Teutonic empires, German & Austrian.
         This may happen either by an immediate German defeat, its armies being broken & chased back from Belgium & Alsace-Lorraine to Berlin, which is not probable, or by the Russian arrival at Berlin & a successful French stand near Rheims or Compiègne, or by the entry of Italy & the remaining Balkan states into the war & the invasion of Austro-Hungary from two sides.
         II. Those bringing about the weakening or isolation of the British power.
         This may be done by the Germans destroying the British expeditionary force, entering Paris & dictating terms to France while Russia is checked in its march to Berlin by a strong Austro-German force operating in the German quadrilateral between the forts of Danzig, Thorn, Posen and Königsberg. If this happens Russia may possibly enter into a compact with Germany based on a reconciliation of the three Empires and a reversion to the old idea of a simultaneous attack on England and a division of her Empire between Germany & Russia.
         III. Those bringing about the destruction of British power.
         This may happen by the shattering of the British fleet and a German landing in England.
         In either of the two last cases an invasion of India by Germany, Russia or Japan is only a question of time, and England will be unable to resist except by one of three means.
         (1) universal conscription in England & the Colonies
         (2) the aid of Japan or some other foreign power
         (3) the aid of the Indian people.
         The first is useless for the defence of India, in case III, & can only be applied in case II, if England is still mistress of the seas. The second is dangerous to England herself, since the ally who helps, may also covet. The third means the concession of self-government to India.
         In case I, there will only remain four considerable powers in Europe & Asia: Russia, France, England, Japan — with perhaps a Balkan Confederacy or Empire as a fifth. That means as the next stage a struggle between England & Russia in Asia. There again England is reduced to one of the three alternatives or a combination of them.
         Of course, the war may take different turns from the above, with slightly altered circumstances & results; the one thing that is impossible, is that it should leave the world as it was before. In any case, the question of India must rise at no very long date. If England adopts more or less grudgingly the third alternative, our opportunity arrives and we must be ready to take it — on this basis, continuance of British rule & cooperation until we are strong enough to stand by ourselves. If not, we must still decide how we are to prepare ourselves, so as not to pass from one foreign domination to a worse.
         I want those of you who have the capacity, to consider the situation as I have described it, to think over it, enlarging our old views which are no longer sufficient, and accustom yourselves to act always with these new & larger conceptions in your minds. I shall write nothing myself about my views, just as yet, as that might prevent you from thinking yourselves.
         Only, two things you will see obviously from it, first, the necessity of seizing on any opportunity that arises of organisation or military training (not self-sacrificing charity, that has already been done); secondly, the necessity of creating an organisation & finding the means, if no opportunity presents itself. It will be necessary for someone from Bengal to come & see me before long, but that will probably not be till October or later.
         I shall write to you before long farther on the subject, as also on other matters.


(Nolini Kanta Gupta:) “Some of the War scenes of Pondicherry come to mind. Here there was no question of volunteers. France has compulsory military training and Frenchmen on attaining the age of eighteen have to join the armed forces and undergo military training for a full period of one or two years. The Renonçants of Pondicherry, that is, those Indians who had secured their full citizenship rights by renouncing their personal status under the Indian law, were also subject to this obligation of compulsory military service. There was, as a consequence, great agitation among our local friends and associates. They had to leave in large numbers to join the French forces. Among them was our most intimate friend, David, the noted goalie of our celebrated football team. He had only just been married. I remember how regularly his wife used to offer worship to Mariamma (Virgin Mary) praying for his safety and well-being, during the period of nearly three years that he had to be away: they were of course Christians. The plaintive tones of her hymns still ring in my ears. David returned after the War was over, perhaps with the rank of Brigadier. I still remember the welcome he was accorded on his return. He later became the Mayor of Pondicherry. I also recall the story of our Benjamin. His mother burst into sobs when she learned he was to leave our shores. There were so many mothers and sisters who shed bitter tears as they saw off at the pier the boatloads of men. Benjamin however did not have to go. He became a ‘reformé’, that is, disqualified in the medical test.
         Within the country itself, Indian patriots with terrorist leanings tried to use in their own way this opportunity to bring England down to her knees. One such group, the Gadar party was caught red-handed, as it tried to land arms and ammunition obtained by ship from America. Another was led by ‘Tiger’ Jyotin, our Tejen’s father as you all know, who waged open war with the police at Buribalam in Orissa and died fighting with all his followers. We have a cinema film of the dramatic episode here. A third consisting of our ‘refugee’ patriots assassinated the tyrannical Magistrate Ashe, through a conspiracy hatched in Pondicherry itself.
         Whether or not such sporadic acts and activities had any real utility is open to question. But a great and noble movement does not keep within the bounds of ‘expediency’; it proceeds along the lines of its inner urge and law. These patriots and revolutionaries have shown how much could be achieved in a nation of slaves, even in that epoch and under those circumstances, by a band of slaves and prisoners bound hand and foot in their chains; they worked to the utmost of what was possible then and according to their capacity. The World War had brought them an opportunity; they thought they might be able to shake England off the seat of her power. They took it as self-evident that England’s difficulty was going to be our opportunity.
         From a larger point of view, the first Great War can be taken as ushering in an end to the French Revolution. The Revolution had rolled to the dust the heads of a single monarch and his queen. But the end of this War saw the disappearance of practically all the crowned heads of Europe. Those that remained, like the monarchy in England, were left as puppets without power. This was an external symbol whose real significance lay in the awakening of the masses and their coming to power. This meant that not only wealth and affluence but also education and culture were no longer the privileges of the few; they must be made available to all. Money and position must be within everybody’s reach, all must get a chance to show their merit. To use our own terminology, the higher Light and Consciousness that are descending on earth and helping man forward in his march to the heights were now finding their fulfilment: they would be firmly established and become a living force in the general level of mankind.”[2]

(Sri Aurobindo to Motilal Roy, May 1920:) “The chaos of incertitude, confused agitation and unseeing unrest which has followed upon the war and is felt all over the world, is now at work in Bengal. The nature of this unrest is a haste to get something done without knowing what has to be done, a sense of and vague response to large forces without any vision of or hold on the real possibilities of the future of humanity and the nation. The old things are broken up in their assured mould and are yet persisting and trying to form themselves anew, the new exist for the most part only in vague idea without a body or clear action and without any power as yet to form what is lacking to them. … The one advantage for us is that it is a chaos and not a new order, and it is essential that we should throw our spirit and idea upon this fermentation, and draw what is best among its personalities and forces to the side and service of our ideal so as to get a hold and a greater mass of effectuation for it in the near future.
         This, as I conceive it, has to be done on two lines. First, what has already been created by us and given a right spirit, basis and form, must be kept intact in spirit, intact in basis and intact in form and must strengthen and enlarge itself in its own strength and by its inherent power of self-development and the divine force within it. This is the line of work on which you have to proceed. We have to confront the confusion around us with a thing that is sure of itself and illumined by self-knowledge and a work that by its clear form and firm growth will present more and more the aspect of an assured solution of the problems of the present and the future. The mind of the outside world may be too shallow, restless and impatient to understand a great, profound and difficult truth like ours on the side of the idea, but a visible accomplishment, a body of things done has always the power to compel and to attract the world to follow it. The only danger then is that when this body of things becomes prominent and attractive, numbers may rush into it and try to follow the externals without realising and reproducing in themselves the truth and the power of the real thing that made it possible.”[3]

(Sri Aurobindo to Motilal Roy, May 1920:) “There are movements at work new and old which are not the definite reality of the future but are needed at the present moment as part of the transition. It is in this light for example that I regard many things that are in process in Europe and I am even moved to give a temporary spiritual support to efforts and movements which are not in consonance with our own and must eventually fail or cease by exhaustion of their utility but are needed as transitional powers. This too is how I regard the work of men like Tilak and Gandhi. We work in the faith that it is our vision of the future that is the central divine will, the highest actualisable possibility and therefore the one thing that must be made the object of our action; but that does not mean that the Shakti is not working in her own covert way and for her own ends through others. No doubt their movements are of a western and materialistic inspiration or else an imperfect mixture, and some day it may be we shall have to give battle to them as certainly we shall have to overcome the spirit that informs them. But that time has not come yet, and meanwhile what we have to do is to develop and spread our own vision and idea and give it body so as eventually to confront the things that are in possession of the present with a realisation of the things that belong to the future.”[4]

  1. Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, p.218
  2. Nolini Kanta Gupta, Reminiscences, p.91, “Pondicherry – II”
  3. Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, p.236
  4. Ibid. p.240

See also