If there is one speech that every Indian must read, and not once but again and again, it is Sri Aurobindo’s speech in Uttarpara on May 30th, 1909, after his release from Alipore Jail. It is greater in significance for the nation than Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ or Gandhi’s Ahmedabad trial in 1922 where he ‘plead guilty’ to the Chauri Chaura incident. And it is equal in relevance to some of the greatest speeches that changed the world in modern times, including Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ and Roosevelt’s ‘a date that shall live in infamy’ or Swami Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago conference of religions in 1892.

Why is that so? Because a speech is great when it expresses a truth in simple language. When it accomplishes what decades or centuries of strenuous effort could not do. When it awakens men to look up to the sky and dream of their own possibilities and of their nation. When it encompasses in a few words what libraries cannot hold.

Sri Aurobindo, I believe, initiated the Indian renaissance with this eloquent recounting of his revolutionary transformation during one year of solitary confinement in the harshest of conditions. He spoke on invitation to the ‘Society for the Protection of Religion”. Inspiration flowed from his words to light up the entire nation, not in a vital conflagration, but in the quiet but intense flame of a yogi of Vedic times. Words that once spoken decide the fate of a people, no matter how long it takes, or difficult the journey. It is the ‘tathastu’ that our seers uttered and whatever they pronounced was done. Kaala itself would then be only an unfolding of the divine directive that had been given. 

‘The best speech is one that may not mark a great event’, as Simon Sebag Montefiore points out in ‘speeches that changed the world’, but may itself become the event. The splendor of such a speech is its great clarity, rigor, moral or spiritual strength that captures the essence of a great civilization or humanity itself.

Before the Uttarpara there might have been confusion about what the Indian struggle of Independence meant or what Hinduism was. After its articulation, a direction and meaning had been given to both. ‘A word had been spoken’ to the nation. And the entire significance of swarajya, while immensely valuable in itself, had been enlarged to include all humanity and earth. Religion had been defined as that which is universal and eternal and the only nationalism possible to an Indian was to realize and practice Sanatana Dharma.

And he says, without affectation, as someone who carries a golden ember in his heart, that he shares with all, “…as I sat here, there came into my mind a word that I have to speak to you, a word that I have to speak to the whole of the Indian Nation. It was spoken first to myself in jail and I have come out of jail to speak it to my people… When I went to jail the whole country was alive with the cry of Bande Mataram, alive with the hope of a nation, the hope of millions of men who had newly risen out of degradation. When I came out of jail I listened for that cry, but there was instead a silence.

“A hush had fallen on the country and men seemed bewildered; for instead of God’s bright heaven full of the vision of the future that had been before us, there seemed to be overhead a leaden sky from which human thunders and lightning rained. No man seemed to know which way to move, and from all sides came the question, “What shall we do next? What is there that we can do?” ”

A country that had been enslaved for centuries, that had lost its vitality along with its faith in itself, had forgotten itself, robbed of its most precious inheritance of a universal and eternal darshana, was ready to awaken to its own dharma and truth. And Sri Aurobindo spoke as the prophet of what India means to the world of the future and why it is important not just for itself but for the entire globe.

“…you of Uttarpara who are the first to welcome me, not at a political meeting but at a meeting of a society for the protection of our religion…I knew I would come out. The year of detention was meant only for a year of seclusion and of training. How could anyone hold me in jail longer than was necessary for God’s purpose? He had given me a word to speak and a work to do, and until that word was spoken I knew that no human power could hush me, until that work was done no human power could stop God’s instrument, however weak that instrument might be or however small. Now that I have come out, even in these few minutes, a word has been suggested to me which I had no wish to speak. The thing I had in my mind He has thrown from it and what I speak is under an impulse and a compulsion.”

Mark Anthony could not have constructed it better in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. For it is a masterpiece of rhetoric, structure and composition. And he lays it out in front of the ten thousand or so people listening to him with pin-drop silence,

“I remembered then that a month or more before my arrest, a call had come to me to put aside all activity, to go in seclusion and to look into myself, so that I might enter into closer communion with Him. I was weak and could not accept the call. My work was very dear to me and in the pride of my heart I thought that unless I was there, it would suffer or even fail and cease; therefore I would not leave it. It seemed to me that He spoke to me again and said, “The bonds you had not the strength to break, I have broken for you, because it is not my will nor was it ever my intention that that should continue. I have had another thing for you to do and it is for that I have brought you here, to teach you what you could not learn for yourself and to train you for my work.

“Then He placed the Gita in my hands. His strength entered into me and I was able to do the sadhana of the Gita. I was not only to understand intellectually but to realise what Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those who aspire to do His work, to be free from repulsion and desire, to do work for Him without the demand for fruit, to renounce self-will and become a passive and faithful instrument in His hands, to have an equal heart for high and low, friend and opponent, success and failure, yet not to do His work negligently.”

In a few simple lines, he has compressed the message of the Gita. And he builds on it, “I realised what the Hindu religion meant. We speak often of the Hindu religion, of the Sanatan Dharma, but few of us really know what that religion is. Other religions are preponderatingly religions of faith and profession, but the Sanatan Dharma is life itself; it is a thing that has not so much to be believed as lived…This is the Dharma that for the salvation of humanity was cherished in the seclusion of this peninsula from of old. It is to give this religion that India is rising. She does not rise as other countries do, for self or when she is strong, to trample on the weak. She is rising to shed the eternal light entrusted to her over the world. India has always existed for humanity and not for herself and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be great. Therefore this was the next thing He pointed out to me. He made me realise the central truth of the Hindu religion.”

It may perhaps have been better if I had offered no commentary here but to excerpt the entire speech. As a literary device, there could not be a more eloquent discourse, yet every word is heart-felt, lived and true to the speaker.

“I had left it to him (the lawyer) and he took it entirely into his hands, with what result you know. I knew all along what He meant for me, for I heard it again and again, always I listened to the voice within; “I am guiding, therefore fear not. Turn to your own work for which I have brought you to jail and when you come out, remember never to fear, never to hesitate. Remember that it is I who am doing this, not you nor any other.

“Therefore whatever clouds may come, whatever dangers and sufferings, whatever difficulties, whatever impossibilities, there is nothing impossible, nothing difficult. I am in the nation and its uprising and I am Vasudeva, I am Narayana, and what I will, shall be, not what others will. What I choose to bring about, no human power can stay.” ”

And then the human touch, the simple cry of the soul, the tender moment that makes us realize that he was human too like all of us, who rose to the greatest heights of purity with intense love for his people and his land. And he says, “Then I found myself among these young men (who were in the jail with him) and in many of them I discovered a mighty courage, a power of self-effacement in comparison with which I was simply nothing. I saw one or two who were not only superior to me in force and character, – very many were that, – but in the promise of that intellectual ability on which I prided myself.

“He said to me, “This is the young generation, the new and mighty nation that is arising at my command. They are greater than yourself. What have you to fear? If you stood aside or slept, the work would still be done. If you were cast aside tomorrow, here are the young men who will take up your work and do it more mightily than you have ever done. You have only got some strength from me to speak a word to this nation which will help to raise it.” ”

And now, again the personal element, “I realised in the mind, I realised in the heart, I realised in the body the truths of the Hindu religion… When I first approached Him, it was not entirely in the spirit of the Jnani… I hardly had a living faith in Him. The agnostic was in me, the atheist was in me, the sceptic was in me and I was not absolutely sure that there was a God at all… So when I turned to the Yoga and resolved to practise it and find out if my idea was right, I did it in this spirit and with this prayer to Him, “If Thou art, then Thou knowest my heart. Thou knowest that I do not ask for Mukti, I do not ask for anything which others ask for. I ask only for strength to uplift this nation, I ask only to be allowed to live and work for this people whom I love and to whom I pray that I may devote my life.” ”

The most intimate secrets are shared not as confession or with pride, but as simple statement of facts and perhaps even lessons in how to approach the Divine in our lives. And he shares with us what he heard in return to the clear austerity of his heart, the word of Narayana, “Something has been shown to you in this year of seclusion, something about which you had your doubts and it is the truth of the Hindu religion. It is this religion that I am raising up before the world, it is this that I have perfected and developed through the Rishis, saints and Avatars, and now it is going forth to do my work among the nations. I am raising up this nation to send forth my word. This is the Sanatan Dharma, this is the eternal religion which you did not really know before, but which I have now revealed to you.

“When it is said that India shall expand and extend herself, it is the Sanatan Dharma that shall expand and extend itself over the world. It is for the Dharma and by the Dharma that India exists. To magnify the religion means to magnify the country… the protection of the religion, the protection and upraising before the world of the Hindu religion, that is the work before us. But what is the Hindu religion? What is this religion which we call Sanatan, eternal? It is the Hindu religion only because the Hindu nation has kept it, because in this Peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages.

“But it is not circumscribed by the confines of a single country, it does not belong peculiarly and for ever to a bounded part of the world. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others. If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal. A narrow religion, a sectarian religion, an exclusive religion can live only for a limited time and a limited purpose. This is the one religion that can triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy.

“It is the one religion which impresses on mankind the closeness of God to us and embraces in its compass all the possible means by which man can approach God. It is the one religion which insists every moment on the truth which all religions acknowledge that He is in all men and all things and that in Him we move and have our being. It is the one religion which enables us not only to understand and believe this truth but to realise it with every part of our being. It is the one religion which shows the world what the world is, that it is the Lila of Vasudeva. It is the one religion which shows us how we can best play our part in that Lila, its subtlest laws and its noblest rules. It is the one religion which does not separate life in any smallest detail from religion, which knows what immortality is and has utterly removed from us the reality of death.”

And there you have it. The dharma described by a brahma-gyani in lucid crystalline prose, such as would make a Nabokov or Joyce proud.

And he ends with a masterly flourish, such that Cicero, Jefferson or Lincoln would have topped with, “…this movement is not a political movement and that nationalism is not politics but a religion, a creed, a faith. I say it again today, but I put it in another way. I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism. This Hindu nation was born with the Sanatan Dharma, with it it moves and with it it grows. When the Sanatan Dharma declines, then the nation declines, and if the Sanatan Dharma were capable of perishing, with the Sanatan Dharma it would perish.

The Sanatan Dharma, that is nationalism. This is the message that I have to speak to you.” In one stroke, an entire civilization’s philosophy, theology, culture and ideals had been presented to the nation that was once again stirring from darkest inertia. As if the gospel had been spoken or the lotus sutra passed down with a single gesture to the humblest and the simplest of his people.

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