Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VI Part I

From Imperialism to Internationalism

It is interesting why Sri Aurobindo discusses the imperial idea before he embarks to construct a road map for internationalism. Internationalism is a comparatively new movement in the time-field of history, consolidated by the perils of the two World Wars in the 20th century though the 40 years that preceded the First World War in 1914 witnessed international commerce, albeit informally, without state regulations. Prior to the appeal of internationalism, from the times of Alexander the Great to the British Raj in India, any global expansionist strategywas naturally part of an imperialistic design. In a way, the imperialistic urge to expand and unite the world by military conquest and political maneuver preceded the contemporary quest for international unity through goodwill and voluntary co-operation. The psychoanalyst has to explore the subconscious which is the repertoire of past experiences to understand the antecedents of ‘conscious’ behavior. Similarly, it is necessary to explore the antecedents of human unity in the imperial movement that preceded internationalism. After all, vestiges of imperialism still exist in the honorific sense of the word from the United Kingdom to Japan and royal marriages at the cost of the State exchequer hold public appeal even in the 21st century.

For Sri Aurobindo, the ‘true problem’ in his exploration is to understand how the artificial political unity of a heterogeneous empire, heterogeneous in racial composition, language and culture, got translated, if at all, into a real and psychological unity. Logically, one must first understand how a more homogeneous aggregate reflected psychological unity in contrast to a heterogeneous composite empire. He therefore starts by studying the “difference between the imperial aggregate in which the component elements are not divided from each other by a strong sense of their separate existence in the whole and the imperial aggregate in which this psychological basis of separation is still in vigour.”(The Ideal of human Unity,pg 293)


The very concept of empire or an imperial aggregate connotes a composite of several sub-nations, a conglomeration of multiple races, linguistic groups and cultural prototypes. Moreover, due to transnational migration in a world of globalization and market economy, it is very difficult to find a homogeneous aggregate in ‘purity’.

Japan was a sort of homogeneous aggregate, “a national whole and an empire only in the honorific sense of the word” (Ibid), but after it occupied Formosa (1894-95) and annexed Korea (1910), “it became a real and a composite empire” (Ibid). It was in 1916 that Sri Aurobindo wrote this, though it was by 1920 that the Japanese empire was firmly established so as to merit a permanent seat on the League of Nations. However, Japan was working towards a psychological unity, had instituted a national education system by 1872 and established a bicameral legislature to provide the basis for political unity and stability by 1889.The homogeneity in Japan was facilitated by the fact that the Japanese are mostly a single ethnic group. In the endeavor to construct Japanese nationalism, there were severe conflicts between Japanese leaders but the issue was not about the freedom and greatness of Japan on which all warring factions were in consonance but on methodological approaches and internal organization (Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, Oct 23, 1907). However, when Japan annexed Formosa and Korea, it shifted from a homogeneous whole to a heterogeneous conglomerate and this was accompanied by a burning imperialistic desire to expand and dominate – an ambition that culminated in disastrous consequences. However the groundwork of homogeneity was not in vain and when Japan was reconstructed after World War II, it was quick to resurrect its pristine pride, strength and honour.

The case of Germanic homogeneity is worth studying. Though the region that later became Austria with a distinct political identity (in 976 AD) was initially invaded and inhabited by many tribes (Celts, Romans, Slavs), they were subjugated by Charlemagne (crowned as emperor in Rome on Christmas Day,800) and subsequently the area became ethnically Germanic. That is why Sri Aurobindo commented that instead of being burdened with three forcible minor acquisitions (Alsace, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein) with which there was no cultural linkage, if Germany had acquired the Teutonic provinces of Austria, we would have witnessed a homogeneous empire “in the true and not merely in the honorific sense of the word” (The Ideal of Human Unity, Pg 293). This would have been “a composite of homogeneous Teutonic nations or, as we may conveniently call them, sub-nations, which would not naturally harbour any sentiment of separatism, but rather, drawn always to a natural unity, would form easily and inevitably a psychological and not merely a political unit” (Ibid). However, he admits that it is difficult to find such form of homogeneity in its purity. The lure of imperialistic expansion disrupts homogeneity and imposes an artificial unity.



In 1916, Sri Aurobindo commented on three large homogeneous aggregations in political thought (Ibid,pg 294):

          1.     The dream of a Pan-Germanic empire

           2.    A great Russian and Pan-Slavic empire

           3.    The Pan-Islamic idea of a united Mahomedan world.

In footnotes added later, in the 1930s,Sri Aurobindo commented (Ibid):

(a) All the three ideas had been broken by the effects of revolution and war,

(b) If communism destroyed the national idea, there might be a possibility of the Pan-Slavic aggregate,

(c) If the nation idea dwindled, the Pan-Islamic idea may again revive.

However, such homogeneous aggregates conceived at that point in time would have to be effected by subjugating heterogeneous elements by political and military compulsion; he gave three such examples in this context (Ibid):

          1.  The retention by Russia of Asiatic nations under her sway,

          2.  The seizure by Germany of wholly or partially non-Germanic countries and provinces,

          3.  The control by the Caliphate of non-Moslem subjects.

In a footnote added in 1930s, Sri Aurobindo commented that though the retention of Asiatic nations by Russia was “modified by the substitution of a Soviet Union claiming to unite these Asiatic peoples voluntarily with Russia: but one is not quite sure whether this is a permanent reality or a temporary apparent phenomenon” (Ibid).

Thus, he had envisaged much early that the Soviet Union would disintegrate.

There are actually two reasons why it is difficult for a homogeneous aggregate to reflect human unity:

1. Once an empire or an aggregate consolidates homogeneity, its desire for imperialistic expansion can grow. In the process it has to use military power and political bullying to control the recalcitrant heterogeneous elements. The resistance may be of two kinds. Either a subjugated nation might find it difficult to give up their cherished nationality. Or else, the conquered people might not identify with the culture of the conquering aggregate. What gets sacrificed is the principle of human unity.

2. In a dynamic global vision, it would be impossible to force a symmetrical homogeneity by effacing heterogeneous elements. One cannot straightaway jump on the bandwagon of internationalism by denouncing or effacing nationalism. If such an attempt is made prematurely, the world will witness resistance that may take dogmatic forms like Pan-religious and pan-cultural groupings or terrorist organizations or ethnic configurations.

Sri Aurobindo writes, “Vast aggregates...would find enclaves in their dominion inhabited by elements  wholly heterogeneous to them or mixed…Thus a Pan-Slavonic empire would necessitate the control of the Balkan Peninsula by Russia as the premier Slav State; but such a scheme would have to meet not only the independent Serbian nationality and the imperfect Slavism of the Bulgar but the quite incompatible Rumanian, Greek and Albanian elements.Thus it does not appear that this tendency towards vast homogeneous aggregates, although it has for some time played an important part in the world’s history and is not exhausted or finally baffled, is ever likely to be the eventual solution…” (Ibid, pg. 294-295).

This 1916 statement, written a year before the Russian revolution, had hints which eventually proved true. Pan-Slavism in the 19th century had some influence on the formation of new Slavic states after World War I. The independent republic of Czechoslovakia was born in 1918 but after World War II, it was compelled to come under the communist rubric. Though the kingdom of Yugoslavia was officially proclaimed by King Alexander I in 1929, it came under communist rule after World War II. All the communist regimes including the USSR had disintegrated by the end of 20th century. Tito’s ‘symmetrical federalism’ aimed to create equality among the six republics and Serbia’s autonomous provinces within Yugoslavia could not hold fort against the forces of disruption and dissolution that resented Serbian dominance. This is because ‘unity’ if symmetrical is bound to be artificial. A real living unity is neither statistical nor symmetrical. It is actually enriched by holding in its bosom the multiplicity, the heterogeneity.

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu