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The Boycott Celebration

SriAurobindo paintings

(A hundred years ago, India was like a raft in a rocky sea in the middle of a storm — a storm of change and resurgence. No one could say what was about to happen but everyone felt the current and many were the great soldiers who were responsible for it. Sri Aurobindo’s words have always carried a force and truth that is hard to ignore or not be affected by. His thoughts expressed in context to a particular situation often have a deeper insight which relates to the future. We are proud and happy to share with you a flashback from the past, written exactly a century ago, and relevant in some measure even today.)

A National festival is the symbol of the national vitality. All outward action depends eventually on the accepted ideas and imaginations of the doer. As these are, so is his aspiration; and although it is not true that as is his aspiration, so is his action, yet it is true that as is his aspiration, so will his action more and more tend to be. If it is the idea that finally expresses itself in all material forms, actions, institutions and consummations, it is the imagination that draws the idea out, suggests the shape and gives the creative impulse. Hence the importance of celebrations like the Seventh of August, especially in the first movements of a great national resurgence. A time may come when the living meaning may pass out of a solemnity or anniversary and leave it a dead form which only the persistence of habit preserves, but that cannot happen until the underlying idea is realised and the imaginative impulse towards creation has victoriously justified itself and exhausted its sources of satisfaction. The ideas which the boycott celebration holds as its roots and the imaginations to which it appeals are not yet even partially satisfied and, until they have confirmed themselves in victorious action and are perpetuated in lasting forms and institutions, it is of the first importance that this great festival should be celebrated in some form or other and, as far as possible, in the form it originally took. There is a meaning in the imaginative conservatism which refuses to part with the cherished pomps and even the little details of show and brightness which have always been associated with this day, the procession, the places, the meeting, the flags, music, songs, the vow, the resolution. Any laxness in these minutiae would show a fainting of the imagination which clings to the festival and its underlying ideas and a carelessness in the heart about those emotions without which the idea by itself is always inoperative. This appeal to the imagination and nourishing of the emotions is especially necessary when the outward circumstances are widely different from the cherished hopes and imaginations and the speedy advent of the longed-for future seems to the reason distant or improbable. That is why importance is attached in all countries to ceremonies and festivals. There are many of us who are inclined to speak with contempt of speeches and shows, and there was a time when we too in our impatience of the mere babbler were inclined to echo the cry for silent work. A juster knowledge of human psychology has led us to modify our view on that head. Man is not by nature a silent animal nor in the mass is he capable of work without frequent interchange of speech. Talk is necessary to him, emotion is necessary to him, imagination is necessary to him; without these he cannot be induced to action. This constitutes the supreme importance of the right of free speech and free meeting; this also constitutes the justification of symbolical holidays and festivals. Speech and writing are necessary to the acceptance and spread of the idea without which there can be no incentive to action. Ceremonies help the imagination and encourage it to see in the concrete that which cannot be immediately realised. It was out of the gurge and welter of an infinite oratory, thousand throated journalism, endless ceremonies, processions, national festivals that the appallingly strenuous action of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age in France arose to reconstitute society and transform Europe. Let us not therefore despise these mighty instruments. God has created them and the natural human love for them for very great and abiding purposes. Even in these few years the Ganapati and Shivaji festivals, instituted by the farseeing human sympathy and democratic instinct of Mr. Tilak, have done much to reawaken and solidify the national feeling of Maharashtra, and we can all feel what a stimulus to the growth and permanence of the movement we have found in the celebrations of the 7th August and the 16th October. They are to us what sacred days are to the ordinary religions. The individual religious man can do without them, collective religion cannot. These are the sacred days in the religion of Nationalism, the worship of God the Mother.

The 16th October is the idea of unity, the worship of the Mother one and indivisible. The 7th of August is the idea of separateness, the worship of the Mother free, strong and glorious. Both these ideas are as yet ideas merely, realised in our faith and aspiration by the shaping imagination, not yet materialised in the world of concrete fact. This, according to our Vedantic ideas, is how the world and things whether in general or particular come into being. They exist first in seed form in the silent and unexpressed idea, in a world of deep sleep where there is as yet no action of thought or deed, only the inert, inoperative idea. Shiva the white and pure, the ascetic, the still, contemplative Yogin holds them in himself as Prajna, the Wise One, God ideal. But Shiva is tamasic and rajas is necessary to induce motion before things can exist. The thing has next to sprout out of the seed and take a volatile and unfixed shape in the psychic world where it waits for a material birth. Here Brahma, the flaming, shapeless and many-shaped, holds them in his brilliant vibrating medium of active imagination and thought and by his daughter Vach, the Goddess Speech eldest-born of the world, puts them into shape and body as Hiranyagarbha, God imaginative and therefore creative. Last they take permanent shape and abide in some material body, form, organism. Vishnu there holds them in his fixed and visible cosmos as Virat, God practical, until the divine imagination wearies of them and Shiva as destroyer draws them back again, their outward form disintegrated and their supporting imaginations dead, into the seed-state from which they emerged. For a long time the idea of unity, the idea of a strong national self-expression were merely sleeping and inoperative ideas held as sounding words rather than possibilities. Still the repetition of the words like the repetition even mechanical of a powerful mantra, began to awaken the divine force latent in the idea and, however feebly, it began to stir. But it was not till the 16th of October and the 7th of August that these ideas seized on the faith and imagination of the people and took shape, volatile and unfixed but still shape, as a living aspiration. The day of material realisation is yet distant. Moving to unity we are still divided by external and internal agencies. Moving towards strength and freedom we are still subject to external force and internal weakness. But this we have gained that the purpose and imagination of unity and strength is rooted in the hearts and minds of a great and the most vigorous portion of the young generation, inheritors of the future, beyond the power of force or sophistry to remove. Having secured so much we can go on in the confidence that, whatever now happens to the pioneers, Hiranyagarbha has taken the new ideas into his protection and when that has once happened Virat must inevitably fulfil them. It is a short-sighted and superficial outlook which sees in the 16th October only the day of mourning for the partition of Bengal or in the 7th August only a commemoration of the Boycott. The Boycott is a symbol, the mourning a symbol. When the weapon of Boycott has done its work, we shall lay it aside, but the 7th August we shall not lay aside, for it is our sacred Day of Awakening. When the Partition is rescinded, we shall cease to go into annual mourning, but the 16th October will not fall into oblivion or desuetude, for it is our sacred Day of the Worship of the Indivisible Mother. These are the imaginations, these the mighty and creative thoughts and aspirations which we seek to foster by these celebrations. Therefore we regard the holding of the Boycott Day as a national duty. Let those who scoff at it and talk of the necessity of silent sadhana, for we have heard of such, be warned how they desecrate sacred words by using them as a convenient cant and try, out of selfish and infidel fears, to thwart in the minds of the young the work which by these celebrations God has been doing.

Sri Aurobindo

(This article appeared in the Karmayogin on 14 August 1909, a hundred years ago)