Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XIII Part I

The Formation of the Nation-Unit – The Three Stages

A nation based on the psychological principle of unity needs a long preparation and its evolution from a morass of heterogeneity has to proceed initially through external pressures that go on moulding a brittle framework till conditions are optimal for a consolidation of nationhood in the psyche of the people at large. Sri Aurobindo marks three stages through which the concept of nationhood grew

1. The first stage is a basic and somewhat loose scaffolding, resistant to progress yet serves a compelling need to maintain the basic tenets of social stability and cultural integrity

2. The second stage is a stringent organisation of power and administration for unity and centrality of control leading to a general leveling and uniformity ; and

3. The third stage breaks the stereotypy of organisation leading to a free internal development but can come only when the nation as a formation has stabilized and ‘unity has become a mental and vital habit’, otherwise anarchy would ensue (Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 374).

First Stage of Formation of the Nation-Unit

The first stage of the evolving nation-unit erects a loose socio-cultural framework based on the phenomenological value of the elements needed in the construction. It is interesting to note the commonality in such a formation in both Europe and Asia which moved ‘towards the evolution of a social hierarchy based on a division according to four different social activities, --spiritual function, political domination and the double economic function of mercantile production and interchange and dependent labour or service’…. ‘The feudal period of Europe with its four orders of the clergy, the king and nobles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariate has a sufficiently close resemblance to the Indian fourfold order of the sacerdotal, military and mercantile classes and the Shudras’ (Ibid, pg 375). Sri Aurobindo points out that the same type of social structuring occurred both in Europe and Asia as the ‘motive-force everywhere was the necessity of a large effective form of common social life marked by fixity of status through which individual and small communal interests might be brought under the yoke of a sufficient religious, political and economic unity and likeness’ (Ibid).

It is interesting to note that despite in-built limitations, the framework of social stratification served as a template for growth towards a nascent nationhood in both Europe and India . Where such social scaffolding was absent, it was difficult for the impulse towards nation-formation to have an optimal push. Sri Aurobindo observed in 1916 ‘ It is notable that Islamic civilization, with its dominant principle of equality and brotherhood in the faith and its curious institution of a slavery which did not prevent the slave from rising even to the throne, was never able to evolve such a form of society and failed, in spite of its close contact with political and progressive Europe, to develop strong and living, well-organised and conscious nation-units even after the disruption of the empire of the Caliphs; it is only now under the pressure of modern ideas and conditions that this is being done’(Ibid).

The evolution of the nation-idea that has to be consolidated in the psyche of a heterogeneous group of people gets facilitated when a social framework is already available as a template regardless of how the framework was originated at different places. (In Europe, the social hierarchy was derived from political, social and economic ideas. In India, the caste system was derived characteristically from religious and ethical ideas though practically the dominant function of the system was social and economic.

Interested readers might refer to the article ‘The Caste system of India-an Aurobindonian perspective’ by the present author in the downloads section of Once a social hierarchy stabilized itself, one or more social groups would tend to dominate other groups and this interaction would lay the direction of the evolving nation-idea. Thus the warrior group could predominate leading towards a nation marked by military might. The religious group could predominate leading to a theocratic state. The intellectual group could predominate leading to a nation marked by rich aesthetic culture. And even though subdued initially, the proletariat could rise up in times of crisis and change the power equation, redefine ng a nation’s identity. Sri Aurobindo lists several examples of how the nation-idea got consolidated at different parts of the world:

1. ‘Japan with its great feudal order under the spiritual and secular headship of the Mikado and afterwards the double headship of the Mikado and the Shogun evolved one of the most vigorous and self-conscious nation-units the world has seen’ (Ibid, pg 375-376).

2. ‘China with its great learned class uniting in one the Brahmin and Kshatriya functions of spiritual and secular knowledge and executive rule and its Emperor and Son of Heaven for head and type of the national unity succeeded in becoming a united nation’(Ibid, pg 376).

3. In Europe, the conflict of the Church and the monarchical State was an important determinant of history and ‘the Church was obliged to renounce its claim to independence and dominance over the temporal power. Even in the nations which remained Catholic, a real independence and dominance of the temporal authority was successfully vindicated; for the King of France exercised a control over the Gallican Church and clergy which rendered all effective interference of the Pope in French affairs impossible. In Spain, in spite of the close alliance between Pope and King and the theoretical admission of the former’s complete spiritual authority, it was really the temporal head who decided the ecclesiastical policy and commanded the terrors of Inquisition’(Ibid, pg 376-377).

4. Usually the social order evolved expectedly ‘in the direction of a secular organization and headship; it created within the nation itself a clear political self-consciousness and, as a consequence, either the subordination of the sacerdotal class to the military and administrative or else their equality or even their fusion under a common spiritual and secular head’(Ibid, pg 376). The remarkable exception to this phenomenon was mediaeval India. Here the social trajectory ‘turned towards the social dominance of the sacerdotal class and the substitution of a common spiritual for a common political consciousness as the basis of the national feeling. No lasting secular centre was evolved, no great imperial or kingly head which by its prestige, power, antiquity and claim to general reverence and obedience could over-balance or even merely balance this sacerdotal prestige and predominance and create a sense of political as well as spiritual and cultural oneness’(Ibid, pg 376). Thus in the political sense of the term, India was not a composite nation. It actually took more than two thousand years for a completely foreign intervention to stimulate the emergence of political self-consciousness that consolidated the construct of India as a nation in the psyche of the people.

Date of Update: 18-Feb-13

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu