Chapter V Part IV
The resurrection of the imperial idea
We will now examine the third question raised by Sri Aurobindo in the beginning of Chapter V. He wants to know whether an economic, political and administrative unification can lead not only to a mere external unity but a real, living, organic unity. Why does he raise this question? In the drive towards establishing an international unity, a new world-order, a broad-scale external unification becomes mandatory. A new world-order would end in a fiasco if it could not manifest a living, organic, psychological unity-principle. Such a broad, trans-national unification moving towards a paramount State can rekindle the memory-traces of the empire-idea in the subconscious of the race.
This sounds preposterous in an age when the empire as an entity has perished, the nation as a psychological entity has evolved and after consolidation strives to surpass the limitations of nationalism to sub serve the growing need for internationalism. Has not the empire-idea disappeared from the earth like the dinosaur? The problem is with the human mind. Nothing is effaced from the subconscious or the collective unconscious of the race. The dinosaur may be physically defunct but creatively reconstructed in Jurassic Park, in animation films, in cartoon networks. It would therefore be not surprising if the specter of world-unity permits a resurgence of the empire-idea.
The nation-idea consolidated as an actuality after the empire perished as a political unit. Sri Aurobindo described, ‘Empires are perishable political units; the nation is immortal. And so it will remain until a greater living unit can be found into which the nation-idea can merge in obedience to a superior attraction’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 291). He suggests that the ‘greater living unit’ into which the nation-idea merges may be the empire-idea resurrected in a new poise with a novel imperial temperament in consonance with the Time-Spirit permeated with the value of internationalism, the spirit of globalization. Obviously, this new empire-idea cannot replicate the old empire which was primarily a political entity consolidated by force that had to be mostly involuntarily imposed on the conquered constituents. Rather it must be based on a living, organic, psychological unity that arises from the matrix of voluntary co-operation of member-nations.
Can the empire-idea be resurrected in a higher poise? A clue from ancient history needs to be considered. Were all empires created only for political prowess? Suppose a great visionary monarch wanted to explore distant lands for the thirst of knowledge, the joy of adventure, the romance of expansion. Three thousand years back, such an exploration to expand the vistas of knowledge and experience also needed an extension of the empire! In ancient India, one more element was added to this motivation of expansion of the empire. When a monarch got exposed to the light of wisdom, the fountain-head of Truth, it became obligatory to spread that message at a global level. The message had to reach the masses that were hitherto not exposed to the light, not trained for the quest. The desire for enlightening the world that included the citizens of other kingdoms was the primary motivation; the military annexation and administrative expansion of the empire with an increasingly centripetal political control were means to create time-fields for that action. ‘The beginnings of the centripetal tendency in India go back to the earliest times of which we have record and are typified in the ideal of the Samrat or Chakravarti Raja and the military and political use of the Aswamedha and Rajasuya sacrifices. The two great national epics might almost have been written to illustrate this theme; for the one recounts the establishment of a unifying dharmarajya or imperial reign of justice, the other starts with an idealized description of such a rule pictured as once existing in the ancient and sacred past of the country’ (Ibid, pg 288-289). This means that once the empire was expanded to disseminate high ideals like Justice, Truth, Righteousness, Dharma (the right way and conduct of life), and the spread of the message was not done by brute force or coercion or involuntary conversion but through icons of culture and ideals of spirituality. That is why the national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata details journeys that span all over the Indian subcontinent. Rama travels from the north of India to Sri Lanka to spread the reign of Truth and Justice by overpowering the demons of ignorance and falsehood. Arjuna travels from the north of India to North-East India carrying the quest for adventure and romance and binds Princess Chitrangadha not with the victor’s chains but with the lover’s passion. And topping them all, Krishna uses the battle-field to consolidate the essence of spirituality – an endeavour that went on to nourish the centripetal tendency in India regardless of the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms for more than two millennia. Social anthropology needs to study how the centripetal tendency survived as a cultural essence when it could no longer be maintained by political power. This cultural essence outlived the fall of the great empires and foreign invasions to emerge as a template for cultural nationalism after two millennia. It is also interesting that much later than the time when the two epics were written, when Asoka expanded his empire and spread Buddhism, he used edicts that were always recommendatory in nature and never implied forceful conversion. Such anti-totalitarian attitudes preserved the essence of Indian culture. We have been talking of ancient periods when in the absence of other means of communication, the expansion of the empire served a psychological purpose. What is important is that the physical annexation preceded the psychological development of the conquered people and ushered a new integer of unity. The political configuration of that unity did not persist with time but the cultural and spiritual connotations of that unity continued to persist so that even after two thousand years, India could stand up as a modern nation, reconstructed in polity, integrated in cultural pluralism and religious diversity.
This phenomenon of political unity preceding psychological consolidation though in different perspectives continues to recur in history. ‘..there have been instances in the evolution of the nation in which the political unity preceded and became a basis for the psychological as in the union of Scotch, English and Welsh to form the British nation. There is no insurmountable reason why a similar evolution should not take place on a larger scale and an imperial unity be substituted for a national unity’ (Ibid, pg 291).
The trend to expand and conquer to usher a reign of unity among people not exposed to high ideals was an innately imperial subconscious necessity in the political psyche. Thousands of years back, when education was not universalized, when communication was not globalized, the expansion of the empire was the modus operandi for the dissemination of high ideals. Times have changed but the memory traces of imperial groupings in the subconscious of the race act as templates for a new world-order that encompasses multiple national units. Sri Aurobindo describes that the new trans-national movement can proceed in two different directions:
(a) A FEDERATION OF FREE NATIONS, or
(b) DISTRIBUTION OF THE EARTH INTO A FEW GREAT EMPIRES OR IMPERIAL HEGEMONIES (Ibid,pg 292).
He hinted that a practical combination of the two ideas can even become a tangible possibility ‘and the combination, if realized made the foundation of an enduring new order of things’ (Ibid). Today, the ‘nation’ is a living unit. Can the imperial idea be resurrected in a new poise with voluntary co-operation of collaborative nations as a living, vibrant global unit?
Date of Update: 18-Nov-11
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu