Reconciling war with peace amid Ukrainian crisis: Through the works of a Russian poet and an Indian rishi

“Finding himself in a world which is apparently a chaos of battling powers, a clash of vast and obscure forces, a life which subsists only by constant change and death, menaced from every side by pain, suffering, evil and destruction, he has to see the omnipresent Deity in it all and conscious that of this enigma there must be a solution and beyond this Ignorance in which he dwells a Knowledge that reconciles, he has to take his stand upon this faith, ‘Though Thou slay me, yet will I trust in Thee.’ All human thought or faith that is active and affirmative, whether it be theistic, pantheistic or atheistic, does in fact involve more or less explicitly and completely such an attitude. It admits and it believes: Admits the discords of the world, believes in some highest principle of God, universal Being or Nature which shall enable us to transcend, overcome or harmonise these discords, perhaps even to do all three at once, to harmonise by overcoming and transcending.”

These words, written by Sri Aurobindo in connection with his commentarial work on the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter VI, “Man and the Battle of Life”, Essays on the Gita) in the 1920s, indicate to a possibility (or the possibility of a possibility) of a reconciliation between “war in its fundamental essence” and “peace in its fundamental essence”. They suggest that such a reconciliation is, first, necessary for resolving the fundamental crisis of our experience, viz. the pervasive recognition of meaninglessness in our existence as embodied human beings; and second, that such reconciliation is possible within one’s lifetime. At any rate, the very fact that this possibility is conceivable, is ground enough for thinking beings to once again feel in their hearts the rush of that much-abused and now largely elusive emotion that our ancestors used to call ‘hope’.

Now, of our ancestral inheritance, “Tho’ much is taken, much abides”, to put it in the words of Tennyson. This is true for both tangible and intangible forms of bequest that we have received from our predecessors. One of those inherited and characteristic Indian traits is the analytical attitude that does not easily give up on the possibility of synthesis of the parts into which studied phenomena are analysed. This trait, if evoked — and we have no other choice but to evoke it here for our present purpose — can help us raise the right questions with regard to the future of the nation that we have inherited, of the civilisation whose memory and vestiges we still carry, and of the dream that someday together we may attain the destiny that we might not yet have lost sight of; in short, the questions concerning our future.

One such question relates to the fundamental nature of the two states of being, namely, war and peace. Some more emphasis on the word “fundamental” won’t be undue here; for such is the nature of the times we live in and such is the pressure of its multifarious compulsions that we must go back to the fundamentals of things if at all we are to find our ways out of the befogging Newspeak and the thought-muddling new-age categories foisted upon us. Who knows, down the line we might even end up solving our reconciliation puzzle with which we began, while carrying out our reconsideration of the fundamental natures of war and peace.

For, what is peace, after all; and what, after all, is war, in their fundamental essence? – is a question that those of us who must live through the present postmodern epoch, characterised by absurdity, incoherence, and nonsensical language, should be asking more frequently, if we are to have any hope of making sense of the events that have been unfolding over the last few decades.


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We are living through times when wars of various kinds — physical, psychological, civilisational, and of several other gross and subtle forms — are raging across battlefields of international borders, across time and space, and also inside of us, at both individual and collective levels. One would therefore have expected that war had by now become very much a part of our day-to-day existence; and yet, somewhat paradoxically, it is not so. Most of us do not know ourselves as well as we think we do, at least not fully yet. The crests and troughs of our spirit have often surprised us.

The unexplored potential of the human spirit has often found channels of expressing itself at times of great distress, such as during wars; as well as in complacent times, such as those that we see in peacetime. On one hand such extreme objective conditions reveal the resilience, perseverance, and magnanimity of the human spirit; on the other, they are prompt in exposing the callousness, inertia, and irrationality of the self-same subject. The extent of our ignorance about ourselves can be surprising at times. On this matter, therefore, it is both prudent and honest to admit: We do not yet know.

Consequent upon this “human, all too human” (to use a Nietzschean phrase which is also the title of one of his books, no less) ignorance, one becomes acutely aware of the possible pitfalls of participating in the ongoing flurry of global debates on war and peace with no first-hand experience of a physical war of any kind whatsoever. Fortunately, one has access to records left for posterity by individuals, who in their lifetime have fought in multiple battles; individuals who have been warriors of a profound kind, and have fought difficult battles against formidable enemies outwardly as much as inwardly.

Sri Aurobindo was one such warrior. A keen student of the vast body of Sri Aurobindo’s works — which in itself is Darshana or India’s lived wisdom retold for a new world and for a new audience — would know that she will get to learn something profound about both war and peace from this Modern Rishi’s extensive writings in English and Bangla, writings into which has gone Sri Aurobindo’s first-hand account of his warrior’s life, where he has poured forth his experiences of incarceration in British Colonial India, his struggle for India’s Swaraj, as well as his upward strivings for spiritual fulfilment through a direct experience of India’s ancient truth and her ultimate destiny.

What Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, another Rishi from a previous generation, had theorised in such works as DharmatattvaKrishna Charitra, and Anandamath as the ‘Anushilan Tattva’, Sri Aurobindo brought forth into blood and flesh. As a consequence, in his writings we find deep meditations on wars that were contemporaneous with his time, their place in the larger and higher scheme of things, and much consideration devoted to even the elusive subject of peace.

Perhaps it would be pertinent to recall, at this particular juncture of history, what Sri Aurobindo had written in his foreword to the first edition of War and Self-Determination (included in the 25th volume of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo), which is a collection of his essays containing reflections on the extraordinary situations arising out of World War I. In fact, Sri Aurobindo was writing the last of these essays which would go into that collection only a few days after the formation of the League of Nations in 1920, two years after the conclusion of the Great War.

Speaking of the characteristics of those times, Sri Aurobindo wrote: “The whole difficulty of the present situation turns upon the peculiar and critical character of the age in which we are living. It is a period of immense and rapid changes so swift that few of us who live among them can hope to seize their whole burden or their inmost meaning or to form any safe estimate of their probable outcome. Great hopes are abroad, high and large ideals fill the view, enormous forces are in the field.”

A contemporary reader of these words, reading them more than a hundred years after Sri Aurobindo had written this foreword in the aftermath of the Great War, is likely to find them to be relevant and even characteristic of our own times. For, who can deny the swiftness of the changes that are currently taking place all around us, as well as the great impact that these changes are inflicting upon our daily lives and upon the world in general? The very fact that we have now become quite accustomed to the way we regularly connect with each other virtually on the web for business or private ‘catch-ups’, is a testimony to the vast and rapid changes that have taken place in just the past two years.

Though we note that “great hopes” and “high and large ideals” find a mention in the above quotation, it is difficult for us to imagine that a keen and penetratingly insightful observer such as Sri Aurobindo would have missed the largely foreboding and cynical environment that the violence and loss of the Great War had engendered, especially in Western Europe.

Even in India, the wartime general atmosphere of hope and cheer with regard to the Indian expectation of a possible slackening of the colonial restraints on India’s political and economic affairs, as a reward for many Indian leaders’ and politicians’ support for Britain’s war preparations as well as for the participation of a large number of Indian conscripts in the war, turned to ashes in the mouths of the people.

Perhaps the only exception to this cross-continental dawning of general disappointment and bitterness was Russia, or more precisely the USSR, which was newly established at that time after much bloodshed in prolonged civil strife. When the dust settled, there was, in the USSR, much euphoria and hope in the air for a world created anew along the lines of the economic and political philosophies of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Many in the USSR, as well as outside that country, believed that here they have found the final answer to the problem of human history and existence: The Communist State. Thereupon these dreamers and romantics readily set out with their efforts of importing the Soviet Model to their own homelands. It is probable that the “great hopes” and the “high and large ideals” mentioned by Sri Aurobindo point to this worldwide excitement around the new-born Soviet model in the early 1920s.

It is something of a windfall for the ‘history-repeats-itself’ club that, within a century, Russia is back in the news for reasons of conflict, which, for a superficial observer, may appear to be of an international character, but is really a new manifestation of a long-drawn internal conflict that has afflicted her unique civilisation, a conflict that originated ever since self-abnegating, cynical, and secessionist forces started gathering speed in that country.

Pushkin, the greatest of all Russian poets, had this to say about the Napoleonic invasion of his motherland in 1812:

“Up, Russia! Queen of [a] hundred battles,

Remember now thine ancient right!

Blaze, Moscow! — Far shall shine thy light!

Lo! other times are dawning o’er us:

Be blotted out, our short disgrace!”

Swell, Russia, swell the battle chorus!

War! is the watchword of our race.”

The above excerpt, with its multiple invocations of a common ancient past, a distinct community of people with its common calling, as well as a common destiny, is pregnant with a vision of the Russian civilisation. The last line, in particular, might appear to a less than careful reader of the text to be a rather forthright admission by Pushkin of the core character of his people as warlike. It is indeed tempting to read that line as an affirmation of the apparently belligerent nature of the Russian people, especially if the reading is carried out anachronistically, in light of the current Ukraine-Russia conflict.

However, we do not fail to notice that Pushkin’s invocation of Russia’s civilisational heritage (or “ancient right”, as he dubs it), and his call addressing his own people, serve the purpose of defending the motherland from an invader. As long as this backdrop to the verses is present in the reader’s mind, she may not find it very difficult to understand that a) it is an affirmation of the Russian people’s courage and character in the face of unnecessary, egotistical aggression; and b) Russia is not afraid of going to war in response to a warmonger’s open provocations and atrocities.

After all, it is not any particular Russian regime nor any particular model of governance/political economy that Alexander Pushkin’s poetry celebrates; instead, it is the civilisational memory and the collective will of a people half-conscious of its pre-Christian, Hellenic-Baltic-Germanic-Pagan past, of its characteristic intolerance for injustice, tyranny, and foreign bullies, and of its fierce zeal for liberty that his odes and short lyrics have championed.

Here one would probably ask: What of the principle of peace, then? Is it simply non-viable in the face of the insurmountable evidence of our times? On the surface, perhaps it is so. Moreover, despite ‘Global Peace’ being the all-pervasive — and often official — motto of international and intergovernmental bodies since the last World War, the incidents of the last two months in Northern Asia reveal that we are far from achieving even a modicum of the stability and order in the realm of politics that ‘world leaders’ and economy-based conglomerations of nations like to frequently boast of.

This in fact brings to one’s mind Sri Aurobindo’s words, once again from the same foreword by Sri Aurobindo that we have mentioned earlier, where he characterises the League of Nations as “remarkably ill-jointed, stumbling and hesitating machine”. Perhaps these words apply equally well for a present-day international institution of which the League of Nations was a precursor.

Nonetheless, Sri Aurobindo doesn’t fail to provide us with a compass that will show us the right direction in this overwhelmingly chaotic world of ours and amidst this ocean of ignorance, when he speaks of what he calls “the obvious but practically quite forgotten truth” that “the destiny of the [human] race in this age of crisis and revolution will depend much more on the spirit which we are than on the machinery we shall use.”

Let us then continue to think, and think hard on these fundamental questions about fundamental states of being, about fundamental categories that define the phenomena of our times as well as of all times, and find necessary support in the reflections of Sri Aurobindo as much as in the soul-stirring — and even soul-sublimating — poetry of Pushkin, while constantly connecting them with the present bearing of the truths of our world(s) as articulated by the Indian Rishi and the Russian Bard.

The author is Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies and Assistant Professor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University. Views expressed are personal.

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