Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters
Readings, in contemporary parlance, chapter by chapter, of THE IDEAL OF HUMAN UNITY

Readings in Chapter I

‘The Turn towards Unity : Its Necessity and Dangers’

The title of the first chapter itself makes interesting reading .He is focusing here not on ‘unity’ per se but on the movement in nature towards unity .Any movement in nature has its utility and dangers. The movement of clouds coalescing with each other is necessary for a bountiful harvest but can also be dangerous if it causes a flood or a deluge. Likewise, the movement towards unity of a collectivity can bring a universalized prosperity that a single individual cannot achieve. But a regimented, uniform unity can crush an individual’s dream for growth and progress.

It is a fact that Nature always strives for unity. It is also a fact that this unity comes with a price .It is the urge for unity that led to gender-based reproduction that in turn led to the emergence of more and more complex forms in evolution. But this also led to the phenomenon of death. The unicellular organism does not die but gets replicated ad infintum!

The term ‘unity’ appears to be a chimera in human life. The mind might prefer a particular idea but the heart might not consent to have it effectuated .Even if the mind and heart are in consonance, the body might rebel and upset all moves! It is so difficult to harmonize and unify the discordant parts of an individual personality .Naturally it is far more difficult to unify and harmonize a collectivity comprising of myriad individuals. Sri Aurobindo concedes, ‘Nothing is more obscure to humanity or less seized by its understanding, whether in the power that moves it or the sense of the aim towards which it moves, than its own communal and collective life.’(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 261)

Nature gives us another interesting example. Many elements in nature unite in different permutations and combinations to form more and more complex organisms. If a microalga is formed by the unity of a certain number of natural principles, a big tree is formed by a much greater unity of natural principles. A cyclone cannot destroy a microalga. A big tree can either be usurped in a storm or fall under the pressure of its own weight if it has started to decay or wear out. And if a mass of trees in a forest catch fire or get uprooted, what havoc is created!

The collapse of huge aggregates

The same story is repeated in great human collectivities .Many countries, nations and kingdoms unite to form huge aggregates which can collapse under their own weight if they start decaying from within. This is what happened to the Roman Empire .Sri Aurobindo wrote, ‘ The Roman Empire is the historic example of an organization of unity which transcended the limits of the nation, and its advantages and disadvantages are there perfectly typified. The advantages are admirable organization, peace, wide-spread security, order and material well-being; the disadvantage is that the individual, the city, the region sacrifice their independent life and become mechanical parts of a machine: life loses its colour, richness, variety, freedom and victorious impulse towards creation. The organization is great and admirable, but the individual dwindles and is overpowered and overshadowed; and eventually by the smallness and feebleness of the individual the huge organism inevitably and slowly loses even its great conservative vitality and dies of an increasing stagnation. Even while outwardly whole and untouched, the structure has become rotten and begins to crack and dissolve at the first shock from outside .Such organizations, such periods are immensely useful for conservation, even as the Roman Empire served to consolidate the gains of the rich centuries that preceded it. But they arrest life and growth.’(Ibid, pg 265).One can draw parallels with the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Republic.

Huge vis-a- vis smaller aggregates

Sri Aurobindo makes a very important psychological observation: huge aggregates or collectivities, even if ‘closely united’ or ‘strictly organised’ do not necessarily support a rich and puissant and fulfilling human life. Rather, it seems that ‘collective life is more at ease with itself, more genial, varied, fruitful when it can concentrate itself in small spaces and simpler organisms.’ He draws instances from the past, both in Europe and in India to illustrate that collective life was most powerful and vibrant when organised in little independent centres acting intimately upon each other but not fused into a single unity ,viz. (Ibid, pg 263-264):


The religious life of tribes that formed the little nation of Jews. The many-sided life of small Greek city-states.  Artistic/intellectual life of Medieval Italy. Small kingdoms of ancient period. Larger but still small nations and kingdoms Pallavas, Chalukyas, Pandyas, Cholas & Cheras. (These were richer in vitality than the great Maurya, Gupta & Mogul empires who gave little other than political and administrative organization)

Sri Aurobindo makes two interesting observation in this huge Vis-a-Vis smaller aggregates context.

(a) Even in the huge aggregates which have been organized efficiently, the throb of life, the élan-vital, the quintessence of culture and power have been actually preserved by ‘a sort of artificial concentration of vitality’ into some localized  centre, classically urban like London, Paris and Rome at the cost of deprivation of the vast spaces occupied by the non-urban proletariat.  ‘By this device Nature, while acquiring the benefits  of a larger organization and more perfect unity, preserves to some extent that equally precious power of fruitful concentration in a small space and into a closely packed activity which she had possessed in her more primitive system of the city state or petty kingdom. But this advantage was purchased by the condemnation of the rest of the organization, the district, the provincial town, the village to a dull, petty and somnolent life in strange contrast with the vital intensity of the urbs or metropolis’ (Ibid, pg 265)

(b) When the small city-states and regional cultures had to eventually merge to form nations, kingdoms and empires, the ‘groupments of smaller nations’ had more sustainable vitality than huge States and colossal empires. ‘Collective life diffusing itself in too vast spaces seems to lose intensity and productiveness. Europe has lived in England, France ,the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the small States of Germany – all her  later civilization and progress evolved itself there, not in the huge mass of the Holy Roman or the Russian Empire’(Ibid, pg 264).

Asia versus Europe

Sri Aurobindo’s comparison of Europe and Asia in the beginning of 20th century vindicated his concept of the diffusion of sustainable vitality in huge aggregates of human beings. Asia had great masses of people but was increasingly backward, isolated and stagnated not only in strength and financial resources but in social stratification, political experimentation and cultural creativity. In contrast, European nations were ‘acting richly upon each other, rapidly progressing by quick creative steps and sometimes by bounds’ (Ibid)

The Collapse of smaller aggregates

Nature inevitably presses the smaller wholes to coalesce into bigger wholes. She makes the smaller aggregates defective so that she can push forward her evolutionary movement towards larger and more complex organizations. The most important defect of the smaller aggregates is the incapacity to stand against foreign invasion by larger organizations (a reason why world bodies like the United Nations are so necessary to safeguard the security of smaller countries). The other defect is the incapacity for wide-spread material well-being (This is why today we feel the necessity of globalization in economy).In short, the smaller aggregates were marked by impermanence and had to follow Nature’s movement of uniting with other aggregates and coalescing to form larger wholes.

The issue of Unity

The main issue in human collectivity is not the conflict between smaller and larger aggregates but Nature’s pressing scheme of unity of mankind. It has to be achieved in the road map of human evolution. It is a divine decree that has to be worked out. Sri Aurobindo undertakes that journey. He begins by examining the natural turn towards unity of human aggregates. He is worried as a mere social, political and administrative unification of mankind can crush the essence of individual freedom and regional self-determination. He also finds that subjects like Sociology and History can give us only kaleidoscopic views instead of unmasking the hidden forces behind the march of civilization. How true! Which social scientist, regardless of Leftist or Rightist affiliation (or for that matter ‘Subaltern’) could have visualized that an ethnic conflict could be sparked off in Bosnia and Serbia at the end of 20th century?

In subsequent chapters of ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, Sri Aurobindo constructs a unity paradigm that would harmonize individual and group freedom within a globalised gestalt and could thus ‘keep the race intact in the roots of its vitality, richly diverse in its oneness’ (Ibid, pg 266)

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu