The British Empire feels like ancient history to the young British generation, but it is still within living memory that India was a province of the great British Empire, with the Queen as head of state. The underlying philosophy of the Empire was the pervading idea of European superiority over the “backward” Indian way of life. It is true that in the late nineteenth century India did have significant problems. Society was rife with material poverty. The Caste system with its problems of the “untouchables” However despite the strong sense of “western” superiority there were several British people who were able to look beyond the surface of Indian society into the hidden spiritual light of India. These great souls were pathfinders for bringing to the fore the unity between the spirit of India and the material development of Britain.
Margaret Noble was born in Ireland and moved to work in London. It was here in London that she became attracted to the remarkable personality of Swami Vivekananda. A disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda had travelled to the West to spread the ancient teachings of Vedanta. Vivekananda was the first Indian Guru to travel to the West and one of the first to eloquently teach the underlying unity of the world Religions. An interesting note is that Vivekananda admitted he travelled to Britain with a heavy heart.
“No one ever landed on English soil with more hatred in his heart for a race than I did for the English.” But after spending several months in England Vivekananda changed his opinion quite markedly :
“There is none among you here present, my brothers, who loves the English people more that I do now.” (1)
Vivekananda would also later say that Britain was the most receptive place for his teachings. Foremost amongst his British disciples was Sister Nivedita. Sister Nivedita became so inspired with the teachings and vision of Vivekananda that she forsook her career in England and travelled to India. In India, Sister Nivedita threw herself heart and soul into Indian culture, serving the Indian people and living the Hindu religion. She won over the hearts of Indian people with her self-giving devotion to the plight of Indian people. For her wholehearted acceptance of the Indian cause Sister Nivedita was widely admired by the Indian population. Sri Chinmoy said of Sister Nivedita.
“The absolute surrender of Miss Margaret Noble at the feet of an Indian sannyasin stands as a glorious proof of the submission of the West before the spiritual Light of India.” (2)
Paul Brunton is the pen name of an Englishman who became disillusioned with his worldly life in England and sought for a deeper meaning to life. He became overwhelmed with a desire to discover the inner meaning of life. Magnetically he was drawn to India with its rich legacy of yogi’s and Seers. He wrote his travels down in a book “A Search In Secret India” Paul Brunton was able to reveal an India that remained invisible to the typical European who never ventured from their local club.
The book is a riveting account of his many encounters with yogi’s, fakirs and astrologers. It is not a eulogy of Indian society, he writes with frankness about misleading yogis and Charlatans. However, the book brings a fitting climax with his visit to Arunachala and the great Sage Ramana Maharshi. It was here in the ashram of Ramana Maharshi that Paul Brunton was able to achieve the peace that had so eluded him in Western society. The book was a best seller and helped to make the meditation and the teachings of Ramana Maharshi available to the Western reader.
Sri Krishanaprem (originally Professor Richard Nixon) was a member of the British Army who was posted to India in the Second World War. He was also a brilliant science tutor who later held a prestigious position in Lucknow university. However, in India, he became fascinated with Hindu culture and began to pursue studies of Hinduism. Sri Krishnaprem became so absorbed in Vaishnavism that he took a female Hindu Guru, Sri Yashoda Mai. Sri Yashoda Mai was an unusual Guru in that she had a prominent social life, mixing in fashionable social circles. However, her fashionable exterior hid a spiritual inner life and intense devotion to Sri Krishna.
Sri Krishnaprem adopted the Vaishnava tradition completely and later started a simple ashram dedicated to Vaishnava ideals. The local British commanders were highly bemused by this intelligent British gentleman who had given up all his luxuries and privileges to live as a Hindu monk. In fact, they were so perplexed by this seemingly irrational decision he was monitored as a potential revolutionary. Sri Krishnaprem was not at all alarmed by this surveillance; in fact, he had no political motives he had simply been drawn to the Hindu tradition. Sri Krishnaprem was a good friend of Dilip Kumar Roy. Dilip would often quote the words of Sri Krishnaprem in his letters to Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo commented that Sri Krishnaprem had a unique blend of mental clarity and genuine devotion. Sri Krishnaprem was a rare combination of a jnana and Bhakti yogi.
In Victorian times the British attitude to Hinduism was rarely appreciative. Much effort went into promoting the work of missionaries who tried to save Hindu’s from their “heathen worship of many Gods”. The pantheon of Hindu Gods was an alien concept for the British steeped in the religious tradition of Christianity. However there was one Hindu temple that was built by the British, Baijnath Mahadev Temple of Agar Malva. See the story of Hindu Temple built by British
There was a time when Britain and India were at loggerheads. Swami Vivekananda’s prophetic voice proclaimed.
“The difficulties that arise between us and the English people are mostly due to ignorance; we do not know them, they do not know us.” (3)
These great souls showed how the spirituality of India and the mental development of Britain could go hand in hand. India’s great patriot and Spiritual Master, Sri Aurobindo spent his formative years in England. He returned to India to fight for India’s complete independence from the British Empire. But Sri Aurobindo fought for independence without cherishing any feelings of hatred; it was his instinctive feeling that India and Britain would one day cherish a unique friendship.
“In the years to come, India and Britain will cherish unique amity. No futile wrangling — the flood of peace shall inundate both countries.”