Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter IV Part I

Chapter IV of The Ideal of Human Unity has an interesting title – ‘The Inadequacy of the State Idea’. Sri Aurobindo uses a classical phenomenological approach, uncontaminated by metaphysical theories, political ideologies or scientific assumptions to study not the inadequacy of the State but the inadequacy of the Idea behind the State. That Idea gives birth to the State, maintains the state, takes the State to the zenith of its functioning or is satisfied with a stable stagnation and finally presides over the decline of the State. In studying this State-Idea, he does not take into cognizance whether the State is monarchic, democratic, socialist, oligarchic, bureaucratic or military. He is concerned that whatever may be the type of the State or the political ideology, and regardless of whether the ruling elite is selected or elected, there is always a gulf of difference between the Idea per se and its practical manifestation. The skeptic will remind that the difference between theory and practice is present in all human endeavors. But the same difference at the level of the State governs the destiny of millions and as such deserves special attention.

Sri Aurobindo describes that prima facie the State Idea has a very lofty theoretical stance in its concept of the ‘subordination of the individual to the good of all that is demanded’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 278). Yet in practical terms, the State Idea is robbed of its universal appeal and actually manifests in the subordination of the individual to the collective egoism of the administrative machinery, the governing coterie or the ruling elite. To make matters worse and to add insult to injury, the ruling class, irrespective of whether it is elected or selected, does not necessarily represent ‘the best of mind of the nation or its noblest aims or its highest instincts’ ( Ibid).

We will attempt to study the significance of his observations. In doing so, we have to understand

(a) the concept of “collective egoism” and
(b) the fact that the energy of the individual is “the really effective agent of collective progress”.

In this write-up, we shall try to understand the meaning and significance of collective egoism.


What does one mean by ‘collective egoism’? It should be differentiated from the individual ego. The individual ego is a psychological construct, an entity that balances the different parts and planes of consciousness -- the physical (body consciousness), the vital (the emotional repertoire), the mental (the cognitive apparatus) which usually are in state of disharmony and disequilibrium. The ego does not descend into our system like a meteorite from the sky; it is derived from the individual’s own physical, vital and mental planes of consciousness. Its problem is that it is skewed in nature, is biased towards the physical or vital or mental and at a certain state of inner progress, needs be replaced by a ego-surpassing soul-principle. This brings real harmony into the system and facilitates the development of dormant suprarational faculties like creativity and intuition, puts one in contact with the great universal forces in nature and helps in personal growth and spiritual progress.

The collective egoism is a completely different concept. It is based on a POLITICAL, MILITARY AND ECONOMIC FORCE. Politically, it intends to be representative of the aspirations of the collectivity and the good for the collectivity but in most cases it represents the modus operandi of the supremacy and domination by the ruling class. Militarily it represents the oppression with which the political might of the ruling class is enforced in times of peace and the capacity to confront other states is times of war. Economically, it intends to work for equitable distribution of resources but in practical terms serves the interests of a vested class. Once the whole State is subjugated politically, militarily and economically by a ruling class or coterie, the State- Idea envisioned for the universal good of all, becomes imperfect and inadequate.

For the individual, tackling the ‘ego’ is a difficult endeavor but can actually be done through an arduous discipline of self-development and personal growth. Even if one cannot deal with one’s ego perfectly, one can still make superficial amendments through one’s morality, ethical values, fear of social opinion, all of which act as cross-checks to individual egoism. However, the collective egoism of the State cannot be cross-checked by either internal or external measures. Unlike the individual, the Nation-state does not have a soul-entity that surpasses the collective ego; it has as its ideal a ‘sacred egoism’ to which even international laws turn out to be mockeries. This is best demonstrated by China which even though is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and has the capacity to make other States insecure by its veto power is nevertheless very insecure about its own ‘sacred egoism’ and got unnerved when a dissident of the collective egoism of the State was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010. A single individual rebel even though imprisoned prompted the gigantic Chinese State to approach diplomats of several countries to boycott the 2010 award ceremony .That is why Sri Aurobindo explains that the State is still an undeveloped intellectual and ethical being. “And unfortunately the chief use it makes of its undeveloped intellect is to blunt by fictions, catchwords and…by State philosophies its ill-developed ethical conscience” (Ibid, pg 280).

It may be argued that a State like China can justifiably take measures to suppress the voice of a lone dissident. After all the State has organized the ‘general economic and animal well-being of the community and even of all individuals’. A protest by its own citizen, even a lone voice serves as a pin-prick to the pride and prestige of State egoism. How should such a State react? Sri Aurobindo explains that in such circumstances, the State reacts to uphold its ‘sacred egoism’ by taking up the mantle of ‘assuring the intellectual and, indirectly, the moral development of the whole community’. He reminds, ’This attempt of the State to grow into an intellectual and moral being is one of the most interesting phenomena of modern civilization’ (Ibid, pg 281). What he wrote in 1915 is still relevant in 2010 when China labeled its human rights activist as a ‘criminal’ after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not only in relation to its own citizens that the State intellectualizes and moralizes but can extend that phenomenon in relation to foreign affairs as well. Such a situation may justifiably happen in the exigencies of situation. What Sri Aurobindo is worried about is that the claim of the State to absorb all free intellectual activities can end in a check to human progress (Ibid). It could result in what he termed in i915 as ORGANISED STAGNANCY (Ibid) as such overtook the Graeco-Roman world after the establishment of the Roman Empire. ( That such a phenomenon can happen today is indicated by the term ‘stable stagnation’ used in contemporary parlance while describing the veteran communist Jyoti Basu’s tenure as Chief Minister of West Bengal in India during 1977 to 2000.Incidentally, it ranks as the longest serving tenure of any Chief Minister in independent India to date.)

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu