Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters


The synthesis of individualism and collectivism

The experiential realization in spirituality that the individual and the group are different and equally important poises of the same Reality is difficult to replicate at the material, mundane field of practical life. Why? At the material level, both the individual ego and the group ego have to consolidate their respective positions through self-preservation as well as self-assertion. Self-preservation proceeds from the bare optimal necessity of survival and when that has been assured gives way to a heightened need for aggrandizement and domination through self-assertion. In earthly creation, each element has to grow to its maximum potential before it can harmonize with its opposite element.

The mystical perspective

The grammar of harmonization has an important significance in the Indian tradition. True harmonization of two apparently irreconcilable elements does not occur through mutual adjustment, compromise or concord but through mutual devouring. ‘In effect, the swallowing up, not of one by the other but of each by the other, so that both shall live entirely in the other and as the other, is our highest ideal of oneness. It is the last ideal of love at which strife tries ignorantly to arrive; for by strife one can only arrive at an adjustment of the two opposite demands, not at a stable harmony, a compromise between two conflicting egoisms and not the fusing of them into each other’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, Pg 272)

Sri Aurobindo could write this as the classical Indian devotional trend enshrined in the Vaishnavite tradition eulogized the complete identification of Lord Krishna with Radha, his divine paramour. Sri Krishna wished to identify totally with Radha’s intense devotion. After exhausting all possibilities, the last option left to Lord Krishna was to enter into the very heart of Radha, to identify completely with Radha’s consciousness, albeit, to become Radha in oneness (Essays of Dr.Mahanambrata Brahmachari, Bengali, Vol. I, Ist Edition, Sri Mahanambrata Birth Centenary celebration Committee,2010,pg 89) :

‘Two in One, Two who know difference rich in sense,

Two to clasp, One to be, this His strange mystery’.(Sri Aurobindo. Collected Poems, pg 590)


The problem is how to effectuate this lofty metaphysical thought invested with the most intense mystic rapture in the mundane, materialistic matrix of individualism and collectivism. Sri Aurobindo proceeds to accomplish this endeavor with two innovative constructs:

(a) His concept of the evolution of consciousness, and

(b) His premise that if group life started with an animal and barbarian anarchy marked by free spontaneity, it can culminate into a higher, intuitive and divine anarchy.

The evolutionary perspective

Evolution starts with Matter as the base and foundation and in this matrix, the Life-principle and Mind-principle successively manifest. However, the world of Matter has to have uniformity so that universal laws of the physical and biological sciences can build a world that is consistent and durable, subject to logically definable guidelines. If this were not so, we could not have made the correct astronomical calculations that allow a spaceship to travel to a planet. Sri Aurobindo explains that material life is characterized ‘not so much in progress as in persistence, not so much in individual self-enlargement as in self-repetition….since individual form is impermanent and only the idea of a form is permanent in the consciousness that creates the universe, -- for there it does not perish…constant reproduction is the only possible material immortality.Self-preservation,self-repetition,self-multiplication are necessarily, then, the predominant instincts of all material existence’(Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga,pg16). The end-result is that ‘UNIFORMITY’ in material life manifests in the gregarious nature of human groups since the beginning of our race. Association became imperative to the survival of the human species (Thank God this happened so that sociology and anthropology could emerge as distinct disciplines robbing psychology of its monopoly on human behavior!). Sri Aurobindo explains that uniformity in human groupings brought safety, security, growth, efficiency, self-assertion, self-preservation—attributes that still go to constitute ‘the dominant idea of all collectivism’(The Ideal of Human Unity,pg273).Indeed, till today, the votaries of the State idea and the champions of socialism and communism are sustained by these basic tenets of collectivism.

At an ordinary level, humanity continually works through this conflict. Suppose there is a community which for generations has produced farmers. If a youngster from this background gets an exceptional education and becomes a space-scientist, is his uniqueness rejected by his immediate social group marked by uniformity in thought and involvement? In all probability, he makes his community proud and inspires others in the community to exceed their limitations. At the same time his regard and commitment to his social group of origin might be appropriate. If a family can integrate a member who has excelled others in the same group why should not we suppose that a greater harmonization between individualism and collectivism is feasible and possible?

There is an important psychological insight in the consciousness perspective of Sri Aurobindo’ Thought. In His view, the individual subconscious sinks into the inconscience which in turn merges with the inconscience of the collectivity. This means that the individual progress can get stalled after an optimal point and may have to wait to progress further till the consciousness of the collectivity is raised a bit. And this is a process that gets continually repeated pari passu with the progress of the individual. Thus it is a divine decree that the individual cannot progress in isolation beyond an optimal point, the collectivity has to follow suit. Nature herself imposes the necessity of integration of the Individual and the Group.

There is no point in losing faith over Universal Nature. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo explains that Nature always harmonizes apparently irreconcilable principles. The inertia and lackluster properties of physical Matter stands in stark contrast with the robust vitality and buoyancy of Life-energy but Nature successfully harmonized them to change the quality of inanimate matter in animate life. Likewise, the rudimentary brain in non-human animal-life stands in sharp contrast to the highly complex human mind but Nature successfully harmonized the two. The central nervous system got increasingly perfected through the biological spiral of evolution till it could support the efflorescence of the world of ideas in the human mind. Sri Aurobindo further explains that the human being is a transitional form and with the evolution of consciousness, there is a possibility of higher models of human beings to emerge. In this evolutionary perspective, the harmonization of individualism and collectivism should naturally and spontaneously follow paving the way for the emergence of higher-order Gnostic societies.

The higher anarchy

Was the early human being an isolated animal, a beast of prey, before he became an animal of the pack? What was the nature of that free and unsocial state that preceded the social state? Sri Aurobindo reminds that traditions always described a golden age where the human being was ‘freely social without society’. He adds, ‘Not bound by laws or institutions but living by natural instinct or free knowledge, he held the right law of his living in himself and needed neither to prey on his fellows nor to be restrained by the iron yoke of the collectivity’(ibid,pg274).Elsewhere, he gives intuitive glimpses of that age, ‘Visions of waters blue in an immortal sunlight or grey in the drifting of a magic welter of cloud & rain, rocks swept by the surf and whistling in their hollows with the wind, island meadows & glades many pictured above the sea, rivers and haze-purpled hills, a scene of unimaginable beauty where forms moved that had not lost the pristine beauty of man before the clutch stiffened on him of early decay &death, of grief and old age, where hearts beat that had not lost the pulsations of our ancient immortality and were not yet attuned to the broken rhythms of pain & grief..’(Essays Divine and Human, pg 427).

In the march of civilization that initial golden age was lost. We lost our innate simplicity as we became more and more complex in time. The development of the individual strengthened the ego-poise and free variation in human nature allowed consolidation of differences between individuals as well as widening of the gulf between the individual and the collectivity. The forced government of man by man coerced a superficial façade of unity through kings, parliaments, laws, policing, punishments, oppression, repression, selfishness and corruption. This venture has continued to make the harmony between individualism and collectivism increasingly difficult to achieve.

Sri Aurobindo reminds that there is also ‘the high dream of philosophic Anarchism, associated by the inner law of love and light and right being, right thinking, right action …..It is even possible that our original state was an instinctive animal spontaneity of free and fluid association and that our final ideal state will be an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity of free and fluid association’(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 274).

How can the bridge between ‘INSTINCT’ and ‘INTUITION’ be built? In Sri Aurobindo’s scheme of things, this necessitates an evolutionary growth in consciousness resulting in the emergence of higher species of human beings who will be more spontaneously able to use supra-rational faculties like intuition. Only then it would be possible to manifest higher-order Gnostic societies where the individual and the group are perfectly harmonized.

Sri Aurobindo’s aspiration may sound utopian but actually the seeds of what he termed as ANARCHY have already been sown in the social psyche. The word anarchy was loosely used till popularized as a valid political construct by Proudhon (1840) and Bakunin (1872).Though suppressed by Fascism in the 1930s, anarchism re-emerged in 1950s and 1960s by influencing the civil rights movement and students movements in the West. In fact the contemporary radical ecology movement that was initiated in the 1970s was very much inspired by anarchism. There is every reason to be optimistic that an uplifted and higher anarchism based on the freedom of soul-poise can really be operative one day.

Sri Aurobindo reminds, ‘Our destiny may be the conversion of an original animal association into a community of the gods. Our progress may be a devious round leading from the easy and spontaneous uniformity and harmony which reflects Nature to the self-possessed unity which reflects the Divine’ (Ibid) .

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu