As India prepared to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this past week, it signified the culmination of an important cycle in the relations of our two countries. It had begun with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel last July—the first by an Indian Prime Minister—and heralded the moving forward towards the next level of cooperation and civilisational partnership. I recalled an encounter that one of our own very senior friend and intellectual elder had with one of the stalwarts of the movement for a homeland for the Jews and for the creation of a new state of Israel that was to be infused and inspired by Jewish civilisational values.
It was an encounter, which, perhaps among many others which would be worth exploring, reflected the deep spiritual inspiration that some of the front-ranking Jewish nationalist leaders had derived from the fountains and masters of Indian philosophy. It was sometime in 1972 that the Paris-based Indian historian, linguist, scholar of Indian culture and of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy Prithwindra Mukherjee was invited by the Hebrew University to deliver a series of talks on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. The year being Sri Aurobindo’s centenary year, the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram had encouraged many such efforts.
On the eve of his talk, recalled Prithwindra, the rector of the University—Dr Poznanski—informed him that “Professor Bergman, [Samuel Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), veteran Jewish philosopher and one of the foremost articulators of Jewish aspirations] Dean of the University, was hoping to listen to me, but owing to his health (running 89), he could not be present at my lecture; he would appreciate if I went to have breakfast with him the next day.”
The next morning on entering the “venerable” philosopher’s impressive home library, Prithwindra was struck by the rows of books by Sri Aurobindo. “On entering the impressive library where sat the venerable scholar, I discovered rows of books by Sri Aurobindo. Amused by my reaction, he (Bergman) asked me to take the seat in front of him and commented on showing me the set: ‘This was our food for thought; David and I read Sri Aurobindo to find some light in our difficult days’.”Yehuda Hanegbi, editor of the literary and cultural review Ariel, who had accompanied Prithwindra, whispered: “By David, he means Ben Gurion!”
It was this expression, “David and I read Sri Aurobindo to find some light in our difficult days,” that stayed on with Prithwindra and, for that matter, with all those who have read or continue to read of this encounter. That Bergman, the philosopher, and Ben Gurion, the political strategist, pre-eminent leader and soul of the struggle for a Jewish homeland, read Sri Aurobindo, among others, to derive spiritual and intellectual sustenance, signify, for those who seek to discern the deeper layers of any struggle for a national self-emancipation, that the sustaining strength of this movement was not only cultural and intellectual but spiritual as well.
It is 70 years since the state of Israel was founded. The struggle for the founding of that state continues to be an inspiring saga. Theodor Herzl, the “spiritual father” of the state of Israel, whose compelling argument and articulation for the necessity of a Jewish homeland, “I will therefore clearly and emphatically state that I believe in the practical outcome of my scheme, though without professing to have discovered the shape it may ultimately take. The Jewish State is essential to the world, it will therefore be created”, launched an irreversible tide of nationalism, struggle, patriotism and sacrifice. India and Israel, bound in their past civilisational struggle for selfhood, can now partner in their quest for a greater future global role.