skip to Main Content

At the Root of Evil? Eric Voegelin and India

Eric Voegelin, whose works have begun to be translated into French, is a German-born American political philosopher best known for his study of political Gnosticism. According to Voegelin, most of Western political ideologies or “political religions” such as Communism, Fascism or National Socialism are best interpreted as parts of a revival of Ancient Gnosticism. But whereas Gnostics of Ancient Times sought to escape the material world through knowledge and thus be reunited with the true God, the God of the Beyond, modern Gnostics are pursuing a different agenda. Their goal is to “immanentize the eschaton”, by which Voegelin means establishing paradise here on earth, even if it is at the cost of extreme forms of violence as illustrated by the crimes of 20th-century Totalitarian Regimes.

The characterization of these movements as “Gnostic” has understandably aroused fierce scholarly debates[1] especially among scholars of Religions. The movements Voegelin had in mind are probably best described as millenarian or apocalyptical. What proves even more problematic to those familiar with Indian thought is that Voegelin seems to suggest that at the root of all those ideological evils lies the belief in the supreme identity between the individual self and the Absolute, which Voegelin reduces to a form of self-aggrandizement. To this we should add that although the term gnosis can be more or less directly translated by the Sanskrit term jñāna, the non-dualism of Śaṅkara bears little resemblance with the dualist speculations of Western Gnostics in Late Antiquity.

In this article, we shall show that Voegelin, when searching for the origin of modern political ideologies, was looking in the wrong direction. From the time of the Ancient Seers, India has recognized in the Self a mystery higher than all the gods. At the same time, Indian consciousness never experienced the type of derailment that occurred throughout Judeo-Christian and Muslim history and gave birth to apocalyptical and millenarian movements. A discussion of Voegelin’s approach to Hinduism will also lay the foundation for a critical examination of the phenomenon of “political religions”[2] in contemporary India, the distortion of traditional Hinduism in neo-Vedānta and Hindu Nationalism.

Voegelin’s Phenomenology of Consciousness and Philosophy of History

Before discussing Voegelin’s treatment of Hinduism, we should first provide a brief overview of his phenomenology of consciousness and philosophy of history, seeking to avoid as much possible to dwell into the most technical aspects of his thought. Whereas the initial impulse behind his theory of consciousness was his critique of totalitarian ideologies, his philosophical language gradually developed from his study of Ancient thought and from his critical reception of the phenomenology of Husserl. As Voegelin wrote it in a letter to Alfred Schütz, later republished in Anamnesis, he could not accept Husserl’s idea that consciousness was primarily oriented toward objects.[3] “Intentionality” only represents one side of the experience of consciousness. Voegelin refers to the other side as its “luminosity”. Voegelin analyzes the luminosity of consciousness as an experience of participation (methexis, μέθεξις) to what is ultimately a transcendent reality (“the divine ground of existence”). “The perspective of participation” means that “man is not a self-contained spectator. He is an actor, playing a part in the drama of being.”[4] For Voegelin, who was somehow a mystic philosopher, the most fundamental human experience is an experience of tension toward the divine, which finds its expression in symbols, which lie at the root of all the mythological, religious, philosophical and even political worldviews ever produced by mankind.

Voegelin’s phenomenology of consciousness, as presented in his magnum opus, the 5 volumes of Order and History, traces the evolution of these symbols through history. The experience of the sacred is constant and universal but in its archaic form, the sacred is experienced in the compact unity of the cosmos, “full of gods”, with “God and man, world and society” forming “a primordial community of being”. To put it simply, Voegelin’s “primary experience of the cosmos” bears many similarities to what is usually called pantheism. During the Ecumenic Age, a radical transformation, a process of differentiation, took place however, that destroyed the unity of the cosmos and contributed to a dedivinization of the world. Voegelin’s notion of Ecumenic Age builds upon the writings of Karl Jaspers[5] on what the latter called the “Axial Age”, the pivotal period in human history (between the 8th and the 2nd centuries BC) which witnessed almost simultaneous spiritual outbursts across different civilizations from Greece to China. It is during this period that what Max Weber calls the universalistic “religions of deliverance” and what most people would spontaneously think about when they refer to religions, took shape. Compared to the Axial Age, Voegelin’s Ecumenic Age extends chronology to include the rise of Christianity. In addition to the notion of spiritual outburst, Voegelin adds the experience of imperial expansion and the development of historiography as defining characteristics of the Ecumenic Age.

From the perspective of his phenomenology of consciousness, the Ecumenic Age is marked by a “discovery” of the soul or psyche. As the idea of an extramundane God beyond the gods of the pantheon emerges, cosmological symbols prove more and more inadequate and are replaced by philosophical (“noetic”) or theological (“pneumatic”) symbols. With the dissociation between the world and the Divine ground, the soul becomes aware of itself as the true seat from where God can be experienced. Voegelin describes this evolution as “a progression from compact to differentiated experiences and symbols”.[6] As a consequence of the emergence of more differentiated symbols, older forms of cosmological symbolization started to be rejected as “untrue”, although in their essence they expressed the same human thirst for the Sacred (which Voegelin acknowledges by referring to “the equivalence of symbols”).

Voegelin was a Christian and he believed that the Christian Revelation represented the pinnacle of human experience with the Divine and he did not hesitate to interpret early-modern religious heresies as well as secular revolutionary movements as a Promethean revolt against God and his radical transcendence from both man and the cosmos. Gnostics want to abolish the tension between God and man by suppressing either the world in which he lives or God. Whereas Ancient Gnostics sought to divinize man (or at least the “elects”), Modern ones prefer to reduce God to the world, to realize the “Kingdom of God” here in this earthly realm. In effect, they are creating an imaginary world, a “secondary reality” to justify their illusions but also, too often, their thirst for violence and blood when the world they inhabit does not live up to their foolish expectations.

The original plan of Order and History suggested a gradual advance from compact to more differentiated symbols on a chronological axis, from the Ancient Near East to Israel and Greece, all the way to the rise of Christianity. Although later in his work, he gradually broke with the scheme of a unilinear development – severely criticizing Hegel’s philosophy of history as an intellectual forgery – Voegelin never revised his original negative appraisal of Hindu spirituality. For Voegelin, as for Hegel, India remains the land where the Spirit has not awakened yet from its mythological slumber.[7]

The Incomplete Differentiation of Consciousness during the Indian Ecumenic Age

According to Jaspers, the Upaniṣads and the predication of the Buddha occupy a place similar to Greek philosophy in the process by which “man became aware of existence as a whole, of his self and of his limitations”, experiencing for the first time “the absolute in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence”. The questioning about the existence and nature of self (ātman) and the path to an extramundane Deliverance (mokṣa or nirvana) became the central concern of both Hindu and Buddhist schools to this day. Voegelin did not ignore the spiritual significance of the Indian experience but as we shall see, he deemed it incomplete compared to the achievements of Ancient Western Philosophy.

At the heart of the wisdom tradition of India lies the Vedas. Their teaching seems to illustrate directly what Voegelin refers to as “the primary experience of the cosmos”. According to the Ṛgveda, the castes (varṇas) are born from the sacrifice of the primordial man (puruṣa). Not only are the gods or devas of Ancient India symbolized by intra-cosmic forces, but a web of correspondence connects the gods of the pantheon with the stratum of society. The tripartite organization of society between the twice born castes, namely Brahmins, Kṣatriyas and Vaiśyas is modeled on the Vedic pantheon with Mitra and Varuṇa, at the top symbolizing sovereignty, followed by Indra, the god of war, and the twins Nasatya and Dasra representing fecundity.[8] In his New Science of Politics, Voegelin, without directly mentioning the case of India, has called “Transcendental Representation” the process by which an historical society shapes its internal order on its understanding of the truth regarding the cosmos.[9]

The emergence of the Upaniṣads in the Axial or Ecumenic Age marks a spiritual outbreak, with the double discovery of the Brahman, the metacosmic ground, and the ātman, the universal Self. The dissociation between the cosmos full of gods and the Divine ground is expressed in one of the most famous passages from the Ṛgveda. Hymn X, 129 describes how in the beginning, only the One was and how, moved by a primordial desire, he manifested the world. The hymn is particularly interesting because according to the Vedic composer, neither the intracosmic gods, nor even Varuṇa, the first among the gods, really knows about the Beyond and how being came out of non-being. The text is frequently regarded by Indologists as a prefiguration of Vedānta philosophy. To put it in Voegelinian terms, the Śaṅkarian commentary (Bhāṣya) on the Revelation (Śruti) amounts to a noetic interpretation of the tension between man and the Divine ground, which had been recorded for the first time in the Ṛgveda. The compact unity of the Vedic cosmos is dissolving, giving birth to the Upaniṣadic literature, in which the question of the self also emerges.

According to Michel Hulin, two lines of mystical investigation about the nature of personal identity can be delineated in the Upaniṣads.[10] The first one focuses on the constituents, both gross and subtle, of the individual. If at the moment of death, the body dissolves, with the elements and faculties returning to the cosmic matrix, what about the person, the puruṣa? Is there a self (ātman), an inner regent (antaryāmin) and if there is one, what happens to it when the body dies? Certain texts suggest an archaic identification of the ātman with the breath (prana) but others, breaking up with the analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm, identify the self with the ground of being, with Brahman itself. According to the teaching of Uddālaka Aruṇi to his son Ṥvetaketu recorded in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Tat Tvam Asi, “That Thou are”, the self is Brahman. Later Upaniṣads like the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad give however a more theistic description of the relationship between the individual and the ground, leaving to the different schools of Vedānta and Indian philosophy in general to decide if Absolute Reality is dual or non-dual.

It is in The Ecumenic Age that Voegelin offers its most systematic treatment of the Upaniṣadic experience. In particular, he focuses on a passage from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad in which Gārgī Vācaknavī questions the sage Yājñavalkya about the ultimate ground of existence. In their intellectual enquiry, the two gradually ascend from lower to higher degrees of cosmic reality, all the way till the Absolute. For Voegelin, the passage echoes some of the core intuitions of Greek philosophy during the Ecumenic Age. Yet, although “the dialogues of the Upaniṣadic type enact the Question that leads toward the ground … they understand this movement beyond the myth not as a break with the myth.”[11] In other words, the differentiation of consciousness remained incomplete in India and the Hindu sages ultimately failed to reach their goal because they proved unable to completely free themselves from “the primary experience of the cosmos”.

Voegelin does not hesitate to assimilate Hindu thought to the still primitive mytho-speculations of the Ionian predecessors of Plato and Aristotle. Philosophically, it cannot compete with the two luminaries of Greek thought, nor does it compare with the religious revolution that shook the Ancient Israel. Referring to the comparative study by Rudolf Otto on Śaṅkara and Meister Eckhart, Voegelin writes that even the perspective of the foremost teacher of Vedānta remained somehow impaired by the intrinsic limitations of the spiritual tradition he came from. As in the case of the presocratic teaching of Parmenides, Śaṅkara’s intuition of being was centered on the difference between the changing and the changeless. The result was that the experience of the world was not given its proper significance and the ācārya could conceive the relationship between God and the universe only in terms of a simplistic dichotomy between the Real and the unreal (if not pure nothingness).

At the risk of falling into Orientalist clichés, Voegelin also claims that Hinduism failed to develop a sense of history as it remained trapped in a cyclical conception of time. Already in Anamnesis, Voegelin could write that “historiography has arisen in mankind’s history in three focal points: in Hellas, Israel and China”, pointing at the failure of India to develop a “reflexive” approach to history.[12] In The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin traces back this inability of India to think history to more theological roots, to the absence of an “historic theophany” comparable to “the epiphany of Christ.”[13] Hinduism, conceiving itself as the eternal religion (Sanātana dharma), ignores history and sees the world as a mere “thing”, undergoing meaningless changes through eons of time – the Manvantaras and the yugas of the Hindu doctrine of the cycles. By contrast, the Judeo-Christian God when entering history – first indirectly through the Jewish prophets and then directly with His Son – infuses it with an eschatological meaning, introducing a radical sense of a before and an after God’s coming.

It is not difficult to see that Voegelin’s treatment of ancient India largely betrays Eurocentric assumptions common in his lifetime even in the scholarly literature. One may recall Husserl’s assertion that philosophy is a purely western phenomenon in his Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology or the neothomist attempt to reduce Hindu spirituality to a form of “natural mysticism”, unable to approach the True God. As we shall establish, these prejudices ultimately prevented Voegelin from understanding the Indian attitude toward time and history in its own terms and, more importantly, from realizing that the secret of the remarkable stability of Indian spiritual consciousness for millenniums probably lied in the non-dualist or “gnostic” teaching of the Upaniṣads.

The Balance of Consciousness of Ancient India

We need to address successively the three “shortcomings” of Hinduism as identified by Voegelin: [1] the incompleteness of its break with the primary experience of the cosmos; [2] the absence of theophanies of first magnitude; [3] its relationship to history.

[1] Voegelin himself has sometimes expressed some concerns about the spiritual consequences of the dedivinization of the world and of the flight of the gods on the average man. In the New Science of Politics, Voegelin remarks that in Christianity, “the feeling of security in a ‘world full of gods’ is lost with the gods themselves.” Only remains “the tenuous bond of faith”. But this bond “may snap easily” causing an individual and collective “breakthrough of faith”.[14]

Building on an intuition that Voegelin did not pursue, one may make the argument that it is the gradual liquidation of cosmological (or pre-Ecumenic) symbols in Christianity, a phenomenon that culminated with the Reformation, combined with the scientific revolutions, that contributed more than anything else to the secularization of the West. The process of rationalization of Christianity, from the marginalization of the devotion to Mary and the Saints to the liturgical reform of Vatican II, has caused a prodigious loss of the sense of the Sacred, of a “breakthrough of faith” in the Western world. By comparison, Hinduism has managed to remain a vibrant tradition to this day, despite having to defend itself against the existential threat of Muslim invaders and later European colonialism. Moreover, the supposed incompleteness of the Indian spiritual outburst might well be the secret of the prodigious continuity of the Sanātana dharma since Antiquity. What singles out Hinduism among the World Religions has been its capacity to preserve the most archaic layers of its own experience of the Sacred and to assimilate the “Other”, making it part of its own tradition. The cosmological symbols of earlier times were not devalorized as untrue, as it happened in monotheistic religions, but have been reinterpreted and continue to play a role in ritual practices. As far as the Hindu conception of the divine is concerned, it is characterized by an equilibrium between the God with form (Saguṇa Brahman) and the God without form (Nirguṇa Brahman). The daily religious practice of the individual is centered on the worship of an Iṣṭadevatā or a “deity of election” but this god or goddess, endowed with cosmic attributes, is conceived as a gate toward the supreme Brahman of the Upaniṣads, the ultimate ground encompassing the individual self (Jīva), the world (jagat) and the personal God (Īśvara). Hindu “incompleteness” could therefore be redefined in terms of harmonious integration between pre-axial/cosmological elements and post-axial elements. Whereas the monotheist man burns what he has adored, Hindu man adopts a more noetic posture, reinterpreting continuously, rather than discarding old myths.

[2] On the question of the divine theophanies, what Voegelin insufficiently takes into account is that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation contributed not only to eschatological valorization of history but also, in its own ways to the secularization of the West. Compared to other religions like Islam for instance, Christian theology and liturgy are focused on the figure of the mediator, not on the invisible Reality it is supposed to represent. The original tension captured with the dogma of the two natures, formulated at the Council of Chalcedon, gave way to an increasing humanization of God over the centuries, ending up with the depiction of Christ in the 18th century as a moral teacher illegitimately divinized by his disciples. Hinduism did develop a relatively similar doctrine of the divine incarnations or descents (avatāras). Hindu bhakti is centered on the interpersonal relation between the devotee and his deity of election which is often a divine descent (Rama or Kṛṣṇa), itself part of a sacred narrative. In India however, the personalist and anthropomorphic conceptions of the divine are always compensated by more metaphysical and aniconic approaches, which historically prevented the emergence of a purely immanentist vision of man and the world.

[3] Finally, the development of historiography and the Christian valorization of history as a meaningful drama provide the necessary (though not sufficient) background for millenarianism. On the contrary, India, at least until the colonial period, seems to have remained largely immune from apocalyptical and millenarian distortions of reality that have periodically caused bloodshed throughout Western history.

What Voegelin also tends to overlook is that, although there was little appetite in traditional India for recording the details of profane history, Hinduism built a quite elaborated theology of history, found mostly in the Epics and in Purāṇas and which deserves more than a passing reference. The theory of the yugas, which closely parallels Hesiod’s teachings in Works and Days, makes the present state of social and moral disorder the culmination of a downfalling process of spiritual decline. Each age, down to our age, the kali-yuga is characterized by a decreasing length and perfection. In Vaiśnavism, the dharma, the socio-cosmic law, is periodically restored by the coming of avatāras. Whereas the description of the first divine descents like Matysa (the fish), Kūrma (the turtle), or Varāha (the boar) up to Narasiṃha (the half-lion half-human avatāra) and Vāmana (the dwarf) contains legendary traits, the later descents are presented as semi-historical and endowed with a human form. The last avatāra of Viṣṇu, the Kalkin-avatāra is yet to come and his advance will coincide with the end of the kali-yuga and the restoration of order.

One also finds in the Hindu literature narratives about the origin of social but also political institutions. According to Louis Dumont,[15] one can distinguish between two types of stories about the origin of the monarchy in the Indian epics, the Manusmṛti and the Purāṇas, one making it a divine institution from the Golden Age and the other the product of a contract passed between the members of society to counter increasing spiritual and moral evils. Dumont interprets the development of this contractualist interpretation of kingship as a sign of early secularization, which would find its completion in the Machiavellian Arthaśāstra, attributed to Chānakya. The phenomenon was not accompanied however by a decline of religious authority per se and, for this reason, it seems more appropriate to use the Voegelinian concept of differentiation to account for the gradual separation between temporal power and spiritual authority in Ancient India.

At first glance, there is no reason to treat Hindu narratives differently from similar Egyptian and Greek semi-mythical constructions. What cannot be denied however is that these stories never ended up in a both grandiose and self-defeating conflict as the one that opposed Roman, Jewish and Christian historians in late Antiquity, nor did they solidify to the point of taking the shape of a monolithic and unilinear narrative. One reason for this was probably contingent, the relative instability of imperial structures in Ancient India. Another was the fact that these narratives are found mostly in the Smṛti, which is considered of human origin and of a much lower level of authority than the Śruti or revelation. Finally, there is the observation already made by Shmuel N. Eisenstadt in his comparative study of Axial Age civilizations, that India never considered the political sphere as a domain where man could fulfill his highest purpose in life.[16] Artha, the pursue of material success and power, remained always subordinated to mokṣa, to the pneumatic quest of ground, on the traditional scale of values (puruṣārtha). The result of this so-called “failure” of India to develop historiography was that the spiritual balance of consciousness was better maintained by the “incomplete” breakthrough that took place in Hinduism than by the supposedly more “complete” one that occurred in the West. India was thus preserved for centuries from the fury of apocalyptic millenarianism that devastated the West and has undermined its religious tradition up to this day.

Making a step further and at the risk of being accused of somehow parodying Marx’s gesture toward Hegel, we should not hesitate to turn Voegelin on his head. What prevented Ancient India to experience the same type of Millenarian derailments as the West was the very teaching of the Upaniṣads regarding the identity between the Self and the Absolute. Whereas in the West, millenarian movements sought to abolish the tension between the self and the Divine ground of existence by building a great narrative about the “end of history” and the transfiguration of life on earth though either a divine intervention or a man-made revolution, Indian consciousness remained faithful to the core teaching of the Ancient Seers, remembering that divine perfection was to be pursued nowhere but within one’s self.

We do not intend to deny that our position entails nothing less than to reversing the hypothesis at the core of Voegelin’s work. It was not the Gnostic claim that the self and God are one that planted the seeds of all later evils but on the contrary dualism, the view that God is other than the self. The necessary connection between millenarianism and dualism is illustrated within the Hindu tradition itself by the case of the devotional and epic literature. As it is well-known, the Mahābhārata tells the story of an apocalyptical wars between two clans, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas. This conflict was plotted by the gods to cause the downfall of the Kṣatriyas and precipitate the advance of the kali-yuga, the last and dark age of mankind. More than any other Hindu text, the Mahābhārata betrays a millenarian bend, is pervaded by an apocalyptical climate, reaching its climax with the final battle and the destruction of Dvārakā by a flood which unmistakably reminds us of the fate of the Atlantis. What is significant is that Mahābhārata is not centered on the pursue of knowledge but on the question of honor and duty and contains the Bhagavad gītā which, at least for most commentators, places emphasis on devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa, to a personal God. Similarly, the Kalkin-avatāra, at least in its present form, is ignored by the Vedic literature and displays all the features of relatively late addition,[17] more compatible with the sectarian religions of medieval India than the sapiential perspective of the Upaniṣads. If we consider the history of religions, it teaches us that millenarian creeds have sometimes been traced back to Ancient Persia, to this branch of Indo-European civilization that saw the world not as a “divine play” (līlā) but as a scene of eschatological conflict between two principles, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the God of Light and the spirit of darkness. Millenarian expectations and dualism seem to always go hand in hand, be it in India or elsewhere.

Before turning to modern and contemporary India, let us add that even if the devotional tradition of India did develop a vision of history that partially echoes the Western apocalyptical fears, we should never lose sight of the fact that for the Sanātana dharma, “the end of the world” remains “the end of a world”, the closure of a cycle always coinciding with the opening of a new one. Even more important, Indian religious consciousness prudently pushed back the end of the kali-yuga to a very distant future, more than 400,000 years from now, thus reminding us that we have more pressing concerns than waiting for the parousia.[18]

Aurobindo and Modern Indian Millenarianism

Beyond passing remarks, Voegelin did not directly approach the question of the influence of modern gnostic ideologies onto non-Western societies in the wake of European colonial expansion. The case should be made though that colonial empires, like the empires of the Ecumenic Age, have accelerated the process of dedivinization of the world. Colonialism and more recently neoliberal globalization, by causing the collapse of traditional landmarks, have created a spiritual vacuum, progressively filled by “political religions” like Islamism for the Middle East or Hindu Nationalism in India.[19]

Hindu Nationalism, which found its first doctrinal expression in the writings of V. D. Savarkar, emerged toward the end of the colonial period, with the rise of tensions between Hindus and Muslims as a prelude to the partition. It was however after the Emergency (1975-1977) and the Ayodhya crisis, that the Hindu nationalists started their rise to power which led to the formation of the first BJP government in 1998. The influence of the Western “political religions” in India, and more particularly fascism and national-socialism, remains controversial but is well-documented, notably by Christophe Jaffrelot.[20] To some extent, it should also be argued that Hindu Nationalists have more or less unconsciously modeled themselves on their enemy, Islamist militant groups that were also flourishing in India at the time and later in Pakistan after the partition.

Like any ethno-nationalist movement, Hindu nationalism remains intellectually unsophisticated. Yet it was capable of capitalizing on certain tectonic shifts triggered by Western colonialism and the reformist response among native intellectuals. Among these intellectuals stands first and foremost the neo-vedāntist thinker Ram Mohan Roy, whose rationalist critique of the worship of Iṣṭadevatā, as mere idolatry, probably struck the first blow to the balance of consciousness in Traditional Hinduism, to the awareness of the immanence of the transpersonal Absolute into cosmic forms which had been the defining feature of Hinduism since the Ecumenic Age. In Roy’s studies of the scriptures, symbols lose their metaphysical transparency, their capacity to point toward a supra-rational reality. They are reduced to the level of mere allegories carrying a moral teaching at best. Rituals are to be replaced by a purely mental worship of the Pure Being, the creator of the universe.[21]

One can argue that Ram Mohan Roy contributed more than any other reformists to a process of disenchantment of the Hindu worldview. His gesture did not remain unnoticed. Not only did it trigger a critical response from traditionalist circles,[22] but one can interpret the works of later neo-Hindu thinkers such as Tilak, Gandhi or Vivekananda as a reaction to Ram Mohan Roy’s abstract monism, as an attempt to reconcile God and the world by restating Vedānta as a practical philosophy with a true political and ethical content.[23]

It was however Sri Aurobindo Ghose who arguably sought to operate a full “reenchantment of the world”, at the risk of operating an immanentization of the Hindu eschaton and thus of creating a spiritual disorder on which nationalist movements could later capitalize. This claim may come as a surprise considering that Aurobindo is mostly known in the West today for his ashram in Pondicherry and for Aurovillle, the utopian city he and his successor Mirra Alfassa (also called the Mother) established. Although for four years, between 1906 and 1910, he belonged to the radical fringe of the Indian Congress, writing nationalist pamphlets and even landing in jail for revolutionary activism, Aurobindo quickly withdrew from politics and his later writings bear witness of a deep awareness of the dangers of “reactionary modernism.”[24] Peter Heehs was therefore probably right to argue that placing Aurobindo in the genealogy of contemporary Hindu nationalism, as Marxists intellectuals have frequently done it since the 70s, is misleading, implying a simplification of his thought “to a point of caricature”.[25] Still, although the political use of Aurobindo as “a symbolic icon, a mascot” may tell us more about the Hindu nationalist search for an intellectual respectability than the Bengali philosopher himself, we would like to make the argument that his thought, whatever its intrinsic value, epitomizes a process of millenarian derailment of the Upaniṣadic experience into a world-immanent ideology and thus unwillingly prepared the ground for the spread of Hindu nationalism under the cover of a rebirth of Indian culture. As we shall see, ultimately, Aurobindo proves to be more a disciple of Hegel and Nietzsche than he was of Yājñavalkya or Śaṅkara.

According to Indra Sen, Aurobindo’s Life Divine raises the following question: How is “divine life, a full life of the Spirit, possible on earth? How can Spirit be reconciled to Matter?”[26] For him, māyāvada, the doctrine of the cosmic illusion, betrays the original intention of the Vedic seers – which he claims to have rediscovered with his pioneer study on the esoteric meaning of the Vedas – because it fails to account for both the absolute reality of Brahman and the relative reality of the world. The world is not a mere illusion (mithyā) but a divine play (līlā). In other words, the Absolute should be conceived of not as an unfathomable and unspeakable One but as process to which man can partake through the awakening of what he calls the “supermind” by which he can see the One in the many and the many on the One. In fact, Aurobindo claimed to have experienced the type of samādhi described in the Vedāntic and yogic literature, only to reject it and to search for a higher experience of enlightenment.

Let us remark that Tantrism, with its alchemic rather than ascetic bend, had indeed already loosened the boundaries between Deliverance (mokṣa) and enjoyment (bhoga), contributing to an immanentisation of the blissful experience of the jīvanmukta. Still, Aurobindo was quite clear that his “integral yoga” was departing from traditional yogic practices, even of a tantric variety. As he himself put it, whereas in Tantrism, the śakti was used as a means to realize the Supreme Spirit, his method was working the other way around, from the Spirit to the cosmic energy[27] with the descend of the supermind and the transfiguration of man and life on earth as the ultimate goal.

Aurobindo saw these parousiatic events as the “end of history”. Borrowing from the Hindu doctrine of the four ages, Aurobindo delineates a two-fold process of spiritual decline and materiel progress driving human evolution. The East symbolizes the original state of perfection, but it gradually fell into a form of spiritual slumber during the third age or dvāpara-yuga. On the contrary, the fourth age or the kali-yuga is dominated by individualism and rationalism, with the West exploring the power of individual subjectivity, possibly driven by the secret desire to recapture the spiritual intuitions gradually buried beneath misunderstandings and dogmas. In this endeavor, the West has unfortunately unleashed however apocalyptical forces that caused the two World Wars. In his lifetime, the West was still controlling the world, but Aurobindo was convinced that as the cycle was coming to an end, humanity would reach higher levels of consciousness and he foresaw a role for India as the vanguard of the pending spiritual revolution.[28]

Unfortunately for Aurobindo and his disciples, they waited in vain for the fulfillment of their delusional dreams. Like Heidegger’s “Last God”, the “Supermind” remained deaf to the prayers of Aurobindo. His project of crowning all the “incomplete” teachings of the past with his own naïve little system simply miscarried. Looking back into Aurobindo’s failure, one may only agree with G.K. Malkani’ response to Aurobindo’s almost Hegelian claim that “consciousness must pass beyond this finite reason and the finite sense to a larger reason and spiritual sense in touch with the consciousness of the Infinite and responsive to the logic of the Infinite which is the very logic of being itself”[29] With all due respect to the sage of Pondicherry, “the logic of the Infinite can only consist in the recognition that the Infinite is wholly transcendent and unrelated to the finite, and that the latter is only an erroneous formulation of the former that requires to be negated.” It is therefore illusory to search for a “higher or larger reason that can reconcile the two, or abrogate the law of non-contradiction itself”.[30] As Sri Ramana Maharshi, another South Indian guru and contemporary of Aurobindo, was teaching, the real goal of spiritual life is to silence the mind so that the everlasting, ever-present Reality can manifest itself. Like the Hegelian system, Aurobindo’s gives less than it claims. Aurobindo’s supermind is not located beyond the mind, but the mind itself when it has lost awareness of its own limitations.

From a more Voegelinian perspective, it seems that Aurobindo has contributed more than anyone else to introduce millenarian expectations in an imminent “end of history” into the Indian imaginary. Worst, Aurobindo has secularized or immanentized the idea of release (mokṣa) from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra), replacing it with the prospect of an intramundane progress of consciousness. The first step should be the self-determination of nations like India, the march of history ending with the establishment of the unity of mankind and a collective enlightenment under the guidance of Aurobindo, the prophet of the “supermind”.

Aurobindo illustrates a very puzzling case of ideological distortion. Not being one of these religiously illiterate gurus who have flourished in India over the last decades and attract so many westerners and lapsed Hindus, he knew that he was distorting the doctrine of the yugas. He was also aware that by turning the transcendent Absolute of the Upaniṣads into a Spirit realizing itself within the world, by temporalizing the Absolute, he was contradicting the core intuition of Advaita Vedānta regarding the nature of reality. As Gauḍapāda declares in his Māṇḍukya Kārikās, “something that already exists cannot be reborn and something which has never existed cannot come into existence.”[31] From the ultime standpoint (paramarthika), nothing has ever come to existence. There is no becoming, only pure and eternal Being.

Aurobindo knew about ajātivāda, the doctrine of “non-birth”, the ultimate teaching of Advaita Vedānta. And yet he chose deliberately to discard it, to disturb the serenity of the One Reality by making it part of a temporally-oriented process[32] because he could not have possibly missed the fact that if “there is neither birth, nor dissolution, no aspirant to liberation nor liberated nor anyone in bondage”[33], his attempt to reconcile time and eternity, being and becoming, mokṣa and artha, to say nothing of his “political theology”, will prove utterly pointless.

In fact, Aurobindo illustrates the case of a brilliant intellectual whose feeling of alienation under colonial ruler was so unbearable that he felt compelled to create a “secondary reality”, a pseudo-myth that disfigures the much richer and sober Hindu experience with Transcendence. Like many of his generation, Aurobindo was also horrified by the destructions and spiritual disorder left behind by the two World Wars and he sought to interpret them in eschatological terms, as signs of a cosmic struggle and of the advance of a new age in which the drama of mankind would finally reach its happy ending.

Little remains of the most profound insights of Aurobindo in Hindu nationalism. His universalism has fallen in the background. The order in society no longer depends on man’s living inwardly and outwardly in conformity with the Truth but, in Schmittian terms on the awareness of a dichotomy between Friends and Foes. If however in Hindu nationalism, the nation (rashtra) could be turned into a sort of immanentist substitute for “the divine ground of existence” with the quest for a collective identity replacing the search for Self-knowledge, it was because Western colonialism and later the response to this challenge by thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda or Aurobindo had destroyed the spiritual balance of consciousness in India.

The rise of “new political religions” in India has therefore little to do with the supposed “incompleteness” of differentiation in Ancient India or the “Gnostic” nature of Hindu wisdom diagnosed by Voegelin. One may wonder however if India will finally succumb to the same sort of spiritual disease that is slowly killing Islam from within. The career of Swami Karpatri, a charismatic saṃnyāsin from Uttar Pradesh, who offered in his writings an metapolitical critique of Hindu Nationalism, accurately portraying it as a modern counterfeit of Hindu spirituality, a political ideology dressed in Vedāntic clothes, should provide reasons for hope.[34] Yet, his work, to say nothing of the small political party (the Ram Rajya Parishad) he created after Indian independence, has failed to produce any tangible political result, at least on a large scale. This failure plus the state of inner disorder in contemporary India reflected in the blatant commodification of spirituality by self-appointed gurus and the enthusiasm of the younger generation for the most absurd expressions of the Western culture leave little room for optimism, at least for the foreseeable future.



[1]  For instance, E. Webb, “Voegelin’s ‘Gnosticism’ Reconsidered”, Political Science Reviewer, 34-1 (2005).

[2]  Early in his career, Voegelin used the expression to designate Totalitarian movements. More recently, Barry Cooper applied it to Islamist movements. See his New Political Religions, or an Analysis of Modern Terrorism (Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 2005).

[3] E. Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002) p.43.

[4] E. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), p. 39.

[5] K. Jaspers, “The Axial age of human history: A base for the unity of mankind”, Commentary, 6(5), (1948) pp. 430-435

[6]  Israel and Revelation, p. 43.

[7]  To avoid dwelling into a too technical discussion of Voegelin’s thought, we shall not examine the metaphysical turn in his last and unfinished fifth volume of Order and History, In Search of Order which still puzzles many of his admirers. For instance, David Walsh discerns in Voegelin’s later writings an “oriental bent”, a tendency to eliminate the “personal god” (D. Walsh, “Voegelin and Heidegger: Apocalypse without apocalypse” in Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought, edited by L.Trepanier & Mcguire, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001). The question remains open whether the later developments in Voegelin’s thought, especially the introduction of the notion of “It-Reality” betray a repressed but crypto-gnostic inclination, a possible convergence with some of the core intuitions of Vedānta.

[8]  G. Dumézil, Mythes et dieux des Indo-Européens (Paris: Flammarion, 1992), p. 117.

[9]  E. Voegelin, Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999) p. 192.

[10]  M. Hulin, Comment la philosophie indienne s’est-elle développée ? : La querelle brahmanes-bouddhistes (Editions du Panama, 2008), pp. 13-27.

[11]  E. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 393.

[12]  Anamnesis, p. 319-320.

[13]  The Ecumenic Age, p. 394.

[14]  Modernity Without Restraint, p. 187

[15]  L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: Essai sur le système des castes (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), pp.359-360.

[16]  S. N.  Eisenstadt, The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany: State University of New York, 1986), p.296.

[17]  M. Rabiprasad, Theory of Incarnation: Its Origin and Development in the Light of Vedic and Purāṇic References (Pratibha, 2000).

[18]  On the question of the length of the kali-yuga, see R. Fabbri, René Guénon et la tradition hindoue: les limites d’un regard (L’Age D’Homme, 2018), p.80.

[19]  On the Islamic side of the story, see R. Fabbri, Eric Voegelin et l’Orient: Millénarisme et religions politiques de l’Antiquité à Daech (L’Harmattan, 2015), pp. 65-120.

[20]  C. Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (Columbia University Press, 1998)

[21]  W. Halbfass, India and Europe: an Essay in Understanding (Albany: State University of New York, 1988), pp.197 and following.

[22]  Halbfass mentions an anonymous pamphlet, the Vedāntacandrikā, published in 1817. The Tantra-tattva, translated by Arthur Avalon under the title Principles of Tantra (Madras: Ganesh and Company, 1999) contains a critique of Ram Mohan Roy (Volume II, p. 301 and following).

[23]  P. Hacker, Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedānta (Albany: State University of New York, 1995), pp.229 and following.

[24]  The term was first coined by Jeffrey Herf in a 1984’s book on the Third Reich. The ambivalent attitude which consist of embracing modern technologies which promoting social and political conservatism is also found among Islamists and Hindu nationalists.

[25]  P. Heehs, “The uses of Sri Aurobindo: mascot, whipping-boy, or what?” Postcolonial Studies, 9:2 (2006) pp. 151-164.

[26]  Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence, edited by N. Bhushan and J. L. Garfield, (Oxford University Press,2011), p. 596.

[27]  The essential writings of Sri Aurobindo, edited by R. McDermott, (Lindisfarne Books, 2001), p. 160.

[28]   Aurobindo, The human cycle, The ideal of human unity, War and self-determination (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971), pp. 5-34.

[29]   Aurobindo, The Life Divine (Aurobindo Ashram, 2005), p. 492.

[30]   Indian Philosophy in English, p. 626.

[31]   Gauḍapāda, Māṇḍukyakārikā: the metaphysical path of Vedānta, translated by Raphael (Aurea Vidya, 2002), IV,4, p. 100.

[32]   It cannot be denied that “process” theologies of a non-dualist type flourished through the world religions, starting in India with Kashmir śaivism, or closer to us the theosophy of Boehme. Yet a common denominator of these doctrines was the awareness of the radical transcendence of the Divine Principle, which is lacking in Aurobindo.

[33]  Ibidem, II, 32 p. 72.

[34]  On Swami Karpatri see J-L. Gabin, L’hindouisme traditionnel et l’interprétation d’Alain Daniélou (Paris: Le Cerf, 2010), Swami Karpatri, The Liṅga and the Great Goddess (Varaṇasi: Indica Book 2008) and “Swami Karpatri, Présence de l’Hindouisme Traditionnel”, La Règle d’Abraham, Hors Serie I (2014).


This was originally published with the same title in in Aditi II (2019).

Renaud FabbriRenaud Fabbri

Renaud Fabbri

Renaud Fabbri received a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Versailles, France and is specialized in Political Theory and in the Philosophy of Religion. He is also the Director of the Aditi Center for the Study of the Hindu Tradition.

Back To Top