Chapter IV Part II
The Individual as the really effective agent of collective progress
There is a difference between the individual who is part of the ruling coterie and the free, creative, thinking individual whose energy; Sri Aurobindo views as the ‘really effective agent of collective progress’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 279). The individual as part of the ruling clique is marked by mediocrity, and what ‘he does usually represent is all the average pettiness, selfishness, egoism, self-deception that is about him and these he represents well enough as well as a great deal of mental incompetence and moral conventionality, timidity and pretence. Great issues often come to him for decision, but he does not deal with them greatly; high words and noble ideas are on his lips, but they become rapidly the claptrap of a party’ (Ibid, pg278).
Sri Aurobindo regrets that ‘The disease and falsehood of modern political life is patent in every country of the world’ and what is surprising is that the ‘the hypnotized acquiescence of all, even of the intellectual classes, in the great organized sham, cloaks and prolongs the malady’ (Ibid).Perhaps this intellectual sycophancy is at its blatant exposition when a politician presides over a subject totally unknown to him while those who have real knowledge clamour for his certification. Social anthropology studies this phenomenon as a ritual of the nation-state that serves the need of social credibility. The spiritual perspective considers such phenomena as directly serving Falsehood and any notion of social credibility need to be consciously rejected to serve the cause of Truth. The Mother reminiscences her experiences in Paris ( during 1897 to 1904 ) ‘ You must remember that the compliments paid by creatures on the same level of ignorance as oneself are really worth nothing, they are just as worthless as the criticisms leveled at one. No matter from what pretentious source they derive, they are futile and empty. Unfortunately, however, the vital craves even for the most rotten food and is so greedy that it will accept praise from even the very embodiments of incompetence. I am reminded of the annual opening of the Arts Exhibition in Paris, when the President of the Republic inspects the pictures, eloquently discovering that one is a landscape and another a portrait, and making platitudinous comments with the air of a most intimate soul-searching knowledge of Painting. The painters know very well how inept the remarks are and yet miss no chance of quoting the testimony of the President to their genius. For such indeed is the vital in mankind, ravenously fame-hungry.’ (Collected Works of The Mother, Volume 3, Centenary Edition, pg137-138, talking about Paris, 1897-1904)
It is ironical that the ruling coterie which usually represents the mediocrity in thought, action and vision should be entrusted to decide the good of all. In the process, what is offered is at most a pot-pourie of ‘organized blundering’ and ‘evil’ with a sprinkling of good. Sri Aurobindo notes that despite such hindrance, the march of Nature moves forward. A classic example is that when the Indian subcontinent was besieged with political conflicts, administrative anarchy, intellectual bankruptcy and a proletariat submerged in inertia and ignorance, Nature brought in the element of foreign invasion to stimulate and consolidate the concept of India arising as a united and independent nation.
The nation in earlier times did not usually deal with issues like the elevation of the proletariat, nor was it engaged in resolving conflicts like that between individualism and collectivism or nationalism and internationalism. It was at most engaged in protecting its community from external threats or itself embarking on a conquest of another nation. It had of course to discharge a modicum of duty towards the common man who if starved would not be able to offer resources needed to enrich the treasury and build palaces. Even then, such a concern for the citizens would have to be secured at times by exploiting neighboring weaker States. The ancient State ‘had, in some countries at least, ideals and a conscience with regard to the community, but very little in dealings with other States’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 281, footnote)
Today the equation has changed because the Time-Spirit presses for an orchestration of Nation States to manifest the ideal of human unity at a global level. The State today ideally has two equally important functions. On one hand it has to fulfill its nationhood through a many-sided growth. On the other hand, it has to balance its relations with other States in the global playing-field in non-exploitative terms. In the process, the stature, prestige and power of the State has arisen considerably. Sri Aurobindo is apprehensive that the rise in power and complexity of the State machinery may ‘eliminate free individual effort altogether or leave it dwarfed and cowed into helplessness’. (Ibid, pg 280)He says so as he believes that the suppression of the individual would result in the disappearance of the ‘necessary corrective to the defects, limitations and inefficiency of the State machine’. (Ibid)
In fact, Sri Aurobindo vociferously refutes two claims of the State Idea :
1 .The first claim of the State-Idea is the call for individual immolation on its altar and the surrender of free individual activities into an organized collective activity. This would result in a replacement of individual egoism by collective egoism. Collective egoism is not answerable to any authority but its own perpetrators. When the judges of high courts of a Nation are accused of corruption, they are answerable to other fellow-judges, not to the country-men at large. When a section of parliamentarians are accused of corruption, they are answerable to a parliament committee, not to the country-men at large. True, the parliament committee may have politicians of both ruling and opposition parties but that does not matter as the secret dealings are never made public. When a deal between a leading industrialist and a communist government was made in West Bengal in India in 2006, it was kept secret from both the willing and unwilling individual farmers from whom land was acquired by the government for a car project. A Nobel laureate expressed his anguish for the economic setback as the car-project could not take off due to mass protest. The thoughtful consolation he had for the individual farmer’s plight was that the land acquisition was not done correctly. Neither the industrialist, nor the economist or the politician appreciated that the individual farmer had a consciousness that had also to be assessed in non-economic terms along with the economic perspective. They also overlooked the potentiality of Nature to disrupt any human construction. Even if the car project took off, what was the guarantee that a natural disaster like an earthquake would not have disrupted it! One may argue that such apprehensions would stall any project. True, but it also means that intellectuals cannot vouchsafe with certainty that their projections are veridical. Policy makers of a country are never expected to feel guilty
if their policies fail. Their failure would be assessed in technical terms or academic terms or would be projected on external agencies. A family physician on the other hand is solely responsible if his patient is
not benefited and has to bear the legal burden and moral guilt of failure. The point to be noted here is that collective egoism is not answerable to any high conscience except its perpetrators while the individual, despite his or her ego has at least a system of morality or ethical sense or a fear of social opinion. This is why, though skewed and limited in action, individual egoism is yet not inferior to collective egoism (Ibid).
Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the high ideals of altruism, solidarity through fellow-feeling and a growing collective soul cannot be achieved by suppression of the individual but can actually be reinforced and consolidated by the fulfillment of the individual. The replacement of the individual egoism by collective egoism is not equivalent to the expansion beyond the limits of the ego into a universal or cosmic consciousness. ‘The State is a convenience, and a rather clumsy convenience, for our common development; it ought never to be made an end in itself’ (Ibid).
2. The second claim of the State-idea is that the supremacy and universal activity of the organized State machine is the best means of human progress. Sri Aurobindo views this ‘as an exaggeration and a fiction’ (Ibid).He rejects outright the notion that the State-governed action is the most perfect for individual as well as collective development. He cites several important reasons to validate his claim:
(a) The State can facilitate co-operative action, remove avoidable injustice and secure for each individual a just and equal chance for self-development .This great contribution of modern socialism can be undermined and jeopardized by an unnecessary interference of the State with the freedom of man’s growth. ‘What is true is that it is capable of providing the co-operative action of the individuals in the community with all necessary conveniences and of removing from it disabilities and obstacles which would otherwise interfere with its working. Here the real utility of the State ceases.’(Ibid)
(b) The State can only eulogize uniformity in function ‘because uniformity is easy to it and natural variation is impossible to its essentially mechanical nature; but uniformity is death, not life’ (Ibid, pg 283) in this context, Sri Aurobindo makes a difference between a national education, national religion and national culture from a State education, State religion and state culture. A national perspective emerges from a long standing tradition and collective sentiment and gives a sense of identity, a sense of pride and a sense of worth to the country-men. It is because of this nationalistic spirit that patriotism is born and martyrs gladly offer themselves at the altar of the country. However, the nationalistic spirit might lose its value if interferes with ‘the growth of human solidarity on the one side and individual freedom of thought and conscience and development on the other’ (Ibid, 283).The world has witnessed the consequences of such interference spanning from the gory excesses of Nazism to the destruction of the Bunyan Buddha statues by the Taliban. In contrast to the nationalistic spirit and temper, Sri Aurobindo condemns a State education, a State religion, a State culture as ‘unnatural violences’. This is because a State, acting on the collective egoism of the ruling coterie can impose its whims and dictates that can be the very antithesis of the nationalistic spirit. A classical example is the ambiguity in the
attitudes of a section of Indian policy makers to the study of Sanskrit. Sanskrit had ceased to be a public dialect even before the advent of Lord Gautama Buddha, yet it had never ceased to be a subject of study and scholarship down the millennia. Can such a subject be suddenly made defunct by a political system that can be usurped by an electoral defeat? At first, a section of foreign scholars representing the
Imperialistic State that looted the wealth of India tried to undermine the importance of Sanskrit (The Journals section of this website has dwelt with this topic, see Archives).Secondly, a section of politically active academicians representing the independent State of India but unmindful of the pristine tradition often express reservations about the utility of Sanskrit studies. Paradoxically, there has been resurgence in Sanskrit studies all over the world. Sanskrit has not only been the fountainhead of the wisdom preserved in the Vedas but in contemporary terms, it is also computer-friendly and ‘mind-fluid’ so that it can be used in a simplified form in the matrix of its derivative languages. Imagine a political coterie taking a decision to reduce the importance of a language that has stood the vicissitudes of millennia!
(c) The State acts like a machinery, not as an organism. It acts without tact, taste, delicacy or intuition. ‘The State is bound to act crudely and in the mass; it is incapable of that free, harmonious and intelligently or instinctively varied action which is proper to organic growth. For the State is not an organism; it is a machinery…It tries to manufacture, but what humanity is here to do is to grow and create. ’ (Ibid, pg 282-283) Sri Aurobindo elaborates his statement by describing the negative side of State controlled education .As far as the State provides equal educational opportunities to all its children, its efforts are laudable but the moment it begins to control and call the shots, it tramples on individual growth and smashes creativity. It can go farther and destroy the dreams, aspirations and careers of a whole youthful generation. This happened in West Bengal in India in early 1980s when a Marxist Finance Minister who was also a reputed economist successfully lobbied to ban the teaching of English at the primary level, overthrowing a nearly two centuries old practice. The power of the State is such that such an important decision could be approved by the cabinet of Ministers without taking opinions from a larger section of educationists. This retrogressive measure in a world of globalization led to such disillusionment in the psyche of a whole generation of students that even after the ban was lifted much later, the consequences are still borne by the youth whose career suffered a serious setback in the highly competitive job market.
Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the necessary correctives to the defects of the State machinery always come from enlightened individuals .The enormous telecom sector scam in India was being overlooked until a highly educated individual economist’s legal protest could not be brushed aside. It was individual journalists who worked hard to expose the Watergate scandal and undermine the most powerful bureaucracy of the world. Sri Aurobindo points out, ‘things would be much worse if there were not a field left for a less trammeled individual effort doing what the State cannot do, deploying and using the sincerity, energy, idealism of the best individuals to attempt that which the State has not the wisdom or courage to attempt, getting that done which a collective conservatism and imbecility would either leave undone or actively suppress and oppose. It is this energy of the individual which is the really effective agent of collective progress. (Ibid ,pg 279).
Date of Update: 18-Nov-11
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu