Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Readings in Chapter III


The Group and the Individual

In Chapter III, Sri Aurobindo raises one of the most important issues in human unity: ‘the strife between two equally deep-rooted human tendencies, individualism and collectivism’. (Ibid, pg 272)

In the history of Time, the term ‘collectivity’ goes on changing its denouement. ‘It was the family, the tribe or the city, the polis; it became the clan, the caste and the class, the kula, the gens. It is now the nation. Tomorrow or the day after it may be all mankind.’(Ibid, pg 273)But whatever be the nature of the collectivity, the conflict between the group and the individual has not yet been resolved in the psyche of the human race.

An introspection of the collapse of the erstwhile U.S.S.R suggests that the brilliant Marxist analysis of the social, economic and political conflict between classes was not matched by an equally brilliant analysis of the psychological and spiritual conflict between the individual and the collectivity. Indeed, disciplines like sociology,anthropology, economics and political science deal with the dynamics of the collectivity. In the process, the individual is relegated to a general common denominator minus its uniqueness. In contrast, the discipline of psychology restores uniqueness as the outstanding attribute of the human being. Spirituality goes a step further. It expands the repertoire of consciousness so that from the flux of potentialities and probabilities that characterize the human mould, there is the increasing emergence of the Godhead, the ‘luminous Person’. That does not mean that the growth of the individual annuls the collectivity. It is said that when Lord Gautama Buddha stood at the threshold of Nirvana, his soul turned back and vowed not to cross over so long there was a single earthly creature bound in the chain of suffering and the knot of the ego. In fact, from the perspective of spirituality and consciousness, the enlightened, self-liberating individual and the engrossing collectivity are equally valid poises of the same Reality.

Nature’s experiments

Sri Aurobindo explains that Nature constantly experiments to balance the authority of the State with the freedom of the individual and in the process, ‘she sometimes seems to lean entirely on one side, sometimes entirely to the other, at others to correct both excesses by a more or less successful temporary adjustment and moderating compromise’. (Ibid, pg 272).Thus ancient Sparta and Bismarck’s Germany (and later Hitler’s totalitarian state) asserted the State idea at the expense of the individual. No wonder, the German historical school of economics that developed in the late 19th century as a reaction against the deductively reasoned ‘laws’ of classical economics, viewed government intervention in the economy as a positive and necessary force. In contrast, ancient Athens and the contemporary French republic are examples where despite asserting the supremacy of the State, a measured freedom, power and dignity is allotted to the individual to the extent that state control is not compromised. After all, the French revolution in 1789 proclaimed the rights of the individual and destroyed monarchical absolutism .Nature conducted a third experiment which was bolder where the State abdicated as much as possible to the individual, emphatically declared that it existed for the growth of the citizen, assured freedom and dignity to individual citizens asserting that individual growth and perfection at its best guaranteed the wellbeing, strength and expansion of the State. For some time in the early years of 20th century, England represented this trend till overpowered by its insular egoism, defects of the race and the dogmatism of limited ideas (Ibid, pg 274-275)

Sri Aurobindo also points out that the absolutist trend of State control persists regardless of the nature of the State .Actually it is human nature that persists in its tyranny, either through the institution of a single monarch over all or through a majority represented in the cabinet or politburo, assembly or parliament over the masses—a paradox which represents the phenomenon of ‘a hypnotized oppression and repression of the majority by itself’. (Ibid, pg 276)

Nevertheless, the State idea has its appeal to the contemporary psyche, and is in wavelength with the awakening of the masses and the palpable strength of the proletariat. The State idea ‘demands that individual egoism shall immolate itself to a collective interest; it claims that man shall not live for himself but for the whole, the group, the community .It asserts that the hope of the good and progress of humanity lies in the efficiency and organization of the State. Its way to perfection lies through the ordering by the State of all the economic and vital arrangements of the individual and the group, the “mobilization” ….of the intellect, capacity, thought, emotion, life of the individual, of all that he is and has, by the State in the interest of all .Pushed to its ultimate conclusion, this means the socialistic ideal in full force …’ (Ibid, pg276)

YET, Sri Aurobindo explains that the State idea is sustained by two motives that represent a ‘fatal mixture of truth and falsehood’:

(a) It appeals to the external interest of the race, and

(b) It satisfies the highest moral standards (Ibid).

Why does he say so?

(a) A mere catering to the external interest of the race cannot usher fulfillment in life that is the aspiration of all human traditions. In fact, when the external needs are taken care of, then the question of meta-needs arises. It is upon this premise that Maslow became famous for his hypothesis of the hierarchy of needs. This quest for meta-needs requires a more and more individualized space with the growth in consciousness which can clash with the norms and sanctions of the collectivity. That is why we often see how the State imposes sanctions against creativity just to placate the ego of a ruling group (witness Solzhenitsyn’s plight for The Gulag Archipelago) or to assuage the sentiments of a belief-system (witness the banishment of Baha Ullah by the Ottoman government for propagating the unity of all religions and universal human brotherhood).Even without going to such extremities, one can cite numerous examples of State highhandedness that are cleverly conceited behind the public eye. One glaring example is the advocating of the outdated Freudian psychoanalysis as the official psychotherapeutic lingua franca in France. This is ironical as France is the cradle of creativity, innovation and new ideas. The State can become more ferocious when its authority is challenged by merely the urge for freedom. The world has witnessed how as late as 1989,, students who were just exerting their right for freedom and otherwise had neither intention nor strength to usurp the power of the State were ruthlessly gunned down in Tiananmen Square. The State is allergic to the simple word ‘freedom’.

(b) The State’s conforming to the highest moral standards has limited value as morality is not the last word of human nature. Moreover, in the case of moral dilemmas that arise in spheres like euthanasia, capital punishment, organ transplant, suicide, the State cannot summarily solve problems based on legal strictures and constitutional amendments. One of Sri Aurobindo’s unique contributions to the world of Thought is that ethical values are transitional and there is a constant transvaluation that moves from the infra-ethical, traverses the ethical range and when that is exhausted, needs to move to supra-ethical poise. There are difficult situations where contentious dilemmas can only be resolved from the supra-ethical poise. To achieve that capability, the individual has to develop his or her repertoire of consciousness and harness new supra-cognitive faculties. At the present state of organization of human collectivities, it is difficult for the State to accommodate such endeavors which are individualized and yet to be optimally universalized. The tragedy would be that in its zeal for uniformity, such creative endeavors may be crushed by the State even before blossoming.

(c) There is another reason why even if the State satisfies the external needs of its citizens and maintains high moral standards can still espouse falsehood .This is because in executing these functions, the State may enrich itself at the cost of depriving other not-so-enriched States and in the process jeopardize the effort towards global human unity. This trend was once visible when European countries exploited their erstwhile colonies. Today the colonies have become independent but the exploitation continues in the garb of globalization, market economy and ecological disparities .It is imperative that one particular State cannot excel at the cost of others. In the grand orchestra of human unity, ways and means have to be worked out for the upliftment of the entire mankind. In subsequent chapters of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo charts out a trajectory towards this end.

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu