Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VI Part III

Psychological unity in heterogeneous conglomerates

Sri Aurobindo ventures next to study how psychological unity achieved in heterogeneous conglomerates in the past were being replicated in the late 19th and early half of the 20th century. It was a time when European countries were colonizing large parts of Asia and Africa (and also South America). In pre-Roman times, the conquering empires exercised simple hegemony or overlordship over the conquered units, vestiges of which were still found in the shape of ‘protectorates’  (The Ideal of Human Unity, 3rd edition, pg. 317) but these were preparatory attempts before exploitatative occupation could become totalitarian. In fact, unlike the more important agenda of aggrandizement of the imperial ego as in ancient Rome, the European colonization in 19th and 20th centuries was motivated powerfully by commercial exploitation  (There were few exceptions (Ibid): The nearest to the Roman type had been the English settlement in Ulster, while the German system in Poland developed under modern conditions the old Roman principle of expropriation).

 Commercial colonies of exploitation 

Sri Aurobindo points out that as in the case of the ancient Roman Empire, the European colonization maintained by administrative control and military power also bestowed enjoyment of superior civic rights to its citizens but in terms of economic exploitation, the European colonization far surpassed the Roman era. The colonies have been actually “commercial colonies of exploitation” (Ibid). The Spaniards went on merrily looting the Latin American countries. Montgomery Martin wrote in 1838 that the annual drain of 3000,000 pounds on British India amounted in thirty years, at 12 % compound interest, to the enormous sum of 723,997,917 sterling; or at a low rate, as 2000,000 for fifty years, to 8,400,000,000 sterling (Arabinda Poddar, Renaissance in Bengal: Quests and Confrontations, 1970, pg. 17, quoted in Sri Aurobindo: A biography and a history, by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, SAICE, Pondicherry, 4th ed, 1985, pg. 11-12 ). Amlan Dutta pointed out that the pillage and exploitation of Bengal by Britishers culminated in the terrible famine of 1770 followed by the acceleration of industrial growth in England celebrated under the name of ‘Industrial revolution’. In other words, the loot of Bengal contributed to the great leap forward in England (Selected Works of Prof. Amlan Datta, Vol.1, ed. by B.B.Dutta et al, Divya Jeevan Foundation, India, 2011). The British Empire did extend from England to Bengal but looting a colony or annexed territory to enrich the homeland cannot foster a sense of psychological unity in such a heterogeneous aggregate. 

Cultural maneuvers

European colonizers like the British were faced with a problem. On one hand they had to maintain colonies so as to exploit and milk them. On the other hand they had to foster a sense of psychological unity amidst the heterogeneity of their empire or else they would lose their conquered colonies or affiliated units. They tried to achieve this by cultural maneuvering but there was a basic difference from the ancient Roman experiment. Rome attempted to establish psychological unity by transcultural symbiosis but they did not initiate this movement with falsehood. Rome started by acknowledging the superiority of Greek culture which culminated in a Greco-Roman perspective. The Europeans of 19th and 20th century tried not to assimilate but change the indigenous cultures of their colonies by imposing their own culture, language and religion (Christianity) which they thought were ‘superior’ to that of the ‘natives’. Initially, in some places, especially where ‘a retardatory orthodoxy’ was to be overcome, there was an enthusiasm for change (as in Turkey and China under the impact of Bolshevist Russia) but this was a temporary phase (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 321). The colonies in the East willingly or in the whirlpool of circumstances assimilated the best in modern European culture but steadfastly refused to part with their age-old spiritual and cultural values. The East took from the West “its science, its curiosity, its ideal of universal education and uplift, its abolition of privilege, its broadening, liberalizing, democratic tendency, its instinct of freedom and equality, its call for the breaking down of narrow and oppressive forms, for air, space, light” (Ibid) . But the East refused to be influenced “in the things which are deepest, most essential to the future of mankind, the things of the soul, the profound things of the mind and temperament” (Ibid).

The French tried to change the Islamic culture in Africa, the English tried to change the pristine tradition of India. Both failed. Christianity succeeded to make inroads in places in India among marginalized populations (like the socially downcast and tribal people) “where it could apply its one or two features of distinct superiority, the readiness to stoop and uplift the fallen and oppressed where the Hindu bound in the forms of caste would not touch nor succour, its greater swiftness to give relief where it is needed, in a word, the active compassion and helpfulness which it inherited from its parent Buddhism. Where it could not apply this lever, it has failed totally and even this lever it may easily lose; for the soul of India reawakened by the new impact is beginning to recover its lost tendencies” (Ibid, pg. 321-322).  This 1916 write-up has three notable points. Firstly, the caste prejudices are considered to be a major drawback in the Indian social system that facilitated Christian conversions. Secondly, Sri Aurobindo views Buddhist teachings to have influenced Christianity (This is a seed-idea that needs to be researched). Thirdly, he had a faith that the age-old social imbalance created by caste prejudices would be finally corrected. It has taken time but the 21st century India is already witnessing a new youthful surpassing of the old decadent systems. In that endeavor, it is not the religious zealots but social activists cutting across all religious and caste barriers who are taking the lead to complete the mission which the late Mahatma Gandhi had initiated in the 20th century.

Cultural hegemony in the West  

The European countries could not work out a psychological unity in their Eastern colonies and thus could not bring an element of homogeneity in their large heterogeneous aggregates which they wanted to fashion after the ancient Roman Empire. However, Sri Aurobindo points out with several illustrations that during that same period spanning the 19th and beginning of 20th century, the European countries themselves could not build up a sense of psychological unity in Europe itself where cultural variation was much less than when the West had to deal with “great Asiatic and African masses rooted for many centuries in an old and well-formed national culture.” (Ibid, pg. 319) There were attempts to impose one European sub-culture over another, as if benefits of civilization were being passed to ‘inferior’ races. “It was tried... in Ireland but although the Irish speech was stamped out except in the wilds of Connaught and all distinctive signs of the old Irish culture disappeared, the outraged nationality simply clung to whatever other means of distinctiveness it could find, however exiguous, its Catholic religion, its Celtic race and nationhood, and even when it became Anglicised, refused to become English… The German failed to Prussianise Poland or even his own kin who speak his own language, the Alsatians. The Finn remained unconquerably Finnish in Russia. The mild Austrian methods left the Austrian Pole as Polish as his oppressed brother in German Posen” (Ibid, pg. 318).  Sri Aurobindo further commented that “The importance even of the smallest States, Belgium, Serbia, as cultural units in the European whole has been lifted almost to the dignity of a creed” (Ibid, pg. 320). It is interesting that Serbia became Yugoslavia after this passage was written and this change was added as a footnote in the late 1930s but by the end of 20th century, Yugoslavia was broken up by ethnic conflict and Serbia regained its cultural uniqueness.

Two years before the German Empire (united by Bismarck in 1871) was dissolved in 1918 after the German defeat in world War I, Sri Aurobindo foresaw the futility of the Germanic re-enactment of the old Roman method of imposing cultural hegemony  which it executed not by peaceful pressure but by brute force: “An attempt of this kind is bound to fail; instead of bringing about the psychological unity at which it aims, it succeeds only in accentuating the national spirit and plants a rooted and invincible hatred which is dangerous to the empire and may even destroy it if the opposed elements are not too small in number and weak in force” (Ibid, pg. 319). It seems as if Sri Aurobindo had a prevision of Hitler’s Germany that came into being nearly two decades after he wrote this passage.

The makeshift solution

The attempt to forge psychological unity in heterogeneous aggregates  of 19th and 20th century, both in the case of transcontinental empires where variability was pronounced  and among intercontinental European empires where variability was much less, could not be effectuated either by force or by cultural hegemony.  “Accordingly there began to rise everywhere a growing sense of the inutility of the endeavour and the necessity of leaving the soul of the subject nation free, confining the action of the sovereign State to the enforcement of new administrative and economic conditions with as much social and cultural change as may be freely accepted or may come about by education and the force of circumstances” (Ibid, pg. 318). This realization that began to dawn in the beginning of the 20th century finally culminated in the setting up of the European Union in 1993.

It is not enough to have a united Europe based on convenience.  It is no more relevant to replicate the old Roman model under modern conditions. Sri Aurobindo pointed out that with the passage of time, the “political motive sinks into significance; the world-motive takes its place” (Ibid, pg. 321). A new model of psychological unity in a globalised world-order has to evolve in consonance with the time-spirit. Sri Aurobindo explains that this model should be of a federal or confederate set-up. He attempts to understand how such a federated set-up composed of heterogeneous cultures and races can be welded into a natural and psychological unit. His apprehensions in 1916 have become more relevant today as the ideology of a global world-order might be hijacked by market forces favoring a centralized economy. The result would be disastrous. Rajinder Puri, a veteran journalist echoes Sri Aurobindo’s line of thinking though he has overlooked that Sri Aurobindo visualized a global world order long before others :

 “Globalization has rendered the eventual emergence of a world order inevitable. The dream of one world order goes back to the 1930s when Wendell Wilkie espoused “One World”. After he lost the 1940 Presidential election to Roosevelt he was appointed ambassador at large to propagate this view as an antidote to imperialism and war. The question is whether the eventual world order should be imposed by a centralized economy at the cost of political sentiments as the corporate world wants, or should it evolve through a federal approach which respects nationalism and cultural differences. The former would rely on imposition, the latter on evolution” (The Statesman, Kolkata, 6th September, 2011, pg 6).  In subsequent chapters of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo unravels how a federal set-up can be the harbinger of a new world-order.

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu