Readings in Chapter V
Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities
In Chapter V of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo raises three pertinent questions:
1. Can historically evolved collective egoisms be modified or abolished to effectuate a new integer of external unity?
2. Can an external unity be established by mechanizing human existence where both individual freedom and the right of self-determinations of collective units are crushed?
3. Can a living, organic unity be achieved by a mere economic, political and administrative unification? (1)
Collectivities and Unity
There are two types of human collectivities:
(a) The first type of collectivity is that which organically develops in the natural evolution of humanity, arises de novo in the socio-anthropological matrix of the human race and (much to the chagrin of anthropologists) becomes a psychological entity, a collective ego that continually changes its form and mode with the progressive evolution of social consciousness to become a dynamic group-soul. He had already commented in a previous chapter, "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." (2) At the present stage of social consciousness, "the nation is the living collective unit of humanity." (3) Unlike the individual whose psychological repertoire is marked by intellectuality, the psychological repertoire of the nation is marked by vitality and dynamism. The nation is in fact "a persistent psychological unit" expressing itself through "physical and political unity." (4) However, Sri Aurobindo explains that the political unity is not the essential factor. The nation-idea exists in the psyche of the collectivity and even if political unity is not achieved, the nation-idea persists through the vicissitudes of time and ravages of history. That is how Italy became a physical unity after many centuries; because, though no longer a State, she never lost her real national sense, never ceased to be a single people. (5)
Sri Aurobindo elaborates, "In former times the nation was not always a real and vital unit; the tribe, the clan, the commune, the regional people were the living groups...But now the nation stands as the one living group-unit of humanity into which all others must merge or to which they must become subservient. Even old persistent race unities and cultural unities are powerless against it....The nation in modern times is practically indestructible, unless it dies from within...All modern attempts to destroy by force or break up a nation are foolish and futile, because they ignore this law of the natural evolution" (6).
(b) The second type of collectivity is that which is artificially imposed on the population by force, annexation, exploitation or manipulation as in the case of bygone empires or by the appeal of a political ideology which compels the acquiescence of regional groupings till the natural and organic resurgence of individual freedom and regional self-determination makes its persistence untenable. (The erstwhile USSR is a classic example of the latter phenomenon and the world watches with interest how the giant state of China will deal with centrifugal forces once the hydra of freedom raises its multifaceted head). If unity is not a real, natural, organic phenomenon that evolves in social consciousness but arises from a mere political conglomeration, then it will tend to disintegrate and can only be somehow maintained by force. Sri Aurobindo gives illustrations from history to prove that while the nation-idea has an element of immortality till it evolves into something superior, the huge political conglomerates like empires are actually "perishable political units." (7) Giving examples from the Austrian imbroglio at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, he writes, "If the political convenience of an empire of this kind ceases, if the constituent elements no longer acquiesce and are drawn more powerfully by a centrifugal force, if at the same time the world outside no longer favours the combination, then force alone remains as the one agent of an artificial unity." (8)
Sri Aurobindo justifies the distinction between the real, naturally evolving collective unit typified today by the nation from an artificial, political conglomerate like the empire; "When...a non-national empire is broken to pieces, it perishes for good; there is no innate tendency to recover the outward unity, because there is no real inner oneness; there is only a politically manufactured aggregate. On the other hand, a real national unity broken up by circumstances will always preserve a tendency to recover and reassert its oneness.... This truth of a real unity is so strong that even nations which never in the past realized an outward unification, to which Fate and circumstance and their own selves have been adverse, nations which have been full of centrifugal forces and easily overpowered by foreign intrusions, have always developed a centripetal force as well and arrived inevitably at organized oneness." (9) The revival of modern Greece and the re-unification of Germany testify the statement that "a distinct group-soul ...driven by inward necessity...uses outward circumstances to constitute for itself an organized body." (10)
Real and political unities
We shall try to understand Sri Aurobindo's first query that whether historically evolved collective egoisms can be modified or abolished to effectuate a new integer of external unity? This is a complex question with a differential response. The case of Austria makes interesting study. The Napoleonic wars that brought about the end of the Holy Roman Empire also created an Austrian empire of political convenience sustained not by any true nationalistic feeling but by the central Germanic element incarnated in the Hapsburg dynasty. The empire of Austria was again reorganized into the dual monarchy of Austria- Hungary but as the empire was a non-national entity, rather, a politically manufactured aggregate, it dissolved in the whirlpool of history .When the post- World War I scenario helped to form Austria as an independent republic, it could not sustain its independence despite an awakening of Austrian national sentiment and was annexed by Nazi Germany in i938.Sri Aurobindo had commented much earlier in 1915-16 that even in its decadence, the Austrian empire existed not on internal factors but on external reasons ,notably the force propelled by the Germanic idea as well as the power of Austro-Magyar partnership to crush down the Slav nations within it .(11) It was as late as 1955 that the Austrian republic was restored. Thus even for consolidating an external unity, Austria had to work through the imperial egoisms of consecutive configurations of political conveniences.
Sri Aurobindo also emphasizes that a real national unity existing in the psyche of a race, if broken up by circumstances always preserves a tendency to recover and reassert its oneness. This phenomenon is excellently illustrated in the case of Greece. "Ancient Greece clung towards her separatist tendencies, her self-sufficient city or regional states, her little mutually repellent autonomies; but the centripetal force was always there manifested in leagues, associations of States, suzerainties like the Spartan and Athenian."(12) That centripetal force was evident even when Eastern Rome, after the collapse of Western part of Rome in the 5th century AD, evolved the Byzantine civilization that preserved the essence of Greek and Roman practices and culture. The separate ego of the Greek nation persisted in the Greek psyche and luckily was not later obliterated by the Ottoman Empire. That is why we see a new integer of external unity in the revival of the national ego in modern Greece.
Another important example of revival of the nationalistic ego and sentiment is the case of Poland. Despite having a golden age of prosperity unto the 16th century, it was later besieged by successive partitions and crushed under the weight of the three powerful empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria and practically ceased to exist after having been deprived of half the population and one-third of the land area. In 1916 Sri Aurobindo acknowledged the strength of the Polish nation-idea in reconstituting Poland (13) but it was only in 1918 that the Polish Republic was officially established. Sri Aurobindo's faith in the real psychological unity that supports the nation-idea was further validated with Polish nationhood surviving the invasion by U.S.S.R and Germany in 1939 that precipitated World War II, the effort of the Nazis to purge Polish culture as well as the large Jewish population, the reoccupation by Soviet forces in 1945, the rule of the Soviet-dominated government since 1947 till the Solidarity labour movement ushering in free elections as late as in 1989.
In the same write-up, Sri Aurobindo wrote "Alsace after forty years of the German yoke remained faithful to her French nationhood in spite of her affinities of race and language with the conqueror."(14) This 1916 statement is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, even after Sri Aurobindo wrote this, Alsace was again occupied by Germany in World War II before finally being restored to France. Secondly, the affinity with German culture and language did not obliterate the French nationalistic identity and to date, both French and German are taught in schools while Alsatian, the German dialect, remains the lingua franca. That is why Sri Aurobindo boldly stated that old racial and cultural unities are powerless against the "nation" as the one living group-unit of humanity. "The Catalonian in Spain, the Breton and Provencal and Alsatian in France, the Welsh in England may cherish the signs of their separate existence; but the attraction of the greater living unity of the Spanish, the French, the British nation has been too powerful to be injured by these persistences."(15) In the same 1916 write-up, Sri Aurobindo had expressed faith in the "Serbian national Idea" (16) that finally got consolidated nearly a century later, in 2003. If group-unity has a sufficient psychological base and uniqueness, then subconscious forces will awaken a sense of political oneness leading to an inevitable external unity. Such instances are found in the unification of Saxon England, mediaeval France and in the formation of the United States of America. (17)
Thus it is true that historically evolved collective egoisms and nationalistic sentiments can be modified and abolished to form new integers of external unity. At times, voluntary fusion of cultural and racial characteristics as well as dissolution of imperial egoisms may be needed in the interest of a more viable group-unit. "In some cases even an entire change of name, culture and civilization has been necessary, as well as a more or less profound modification of the race. Notably has this happened in the formation of French nationality. The ancient Gallic people, in spite of or perhaps because of its Druidic civilization and early greatness, was more incapable of organizing a firm political unity than even the ancient Greeks or the old Indian kingdoms and republics. It needed the Roman rule and Latin culture, the superimposition of a Teutonic ruling caste and finally the shock of the temporary and partial English conquest to found the unequalled unity of modern France. Yet though name, civilization and all else seem to have changed, the French nation of today is still and has always remained the old Gallic nation with its Basque, Gaelic, Armorican and other ancient elements modified by the Frank and Latin admixture."(18)
External unity and liberty
We shall now try to understand Sri Aurobindo's second query .He raises the issue whether external unity can be achieved by crushing both individual freedom as well as the right of self-determination of collective units. This is again a complex phenomenon. Such an attempt did not survive in the erstwhile Soviet republic. Yet the union of the Scotch, English and Welsh to form the British nation is a unique example of how an external unity held by political force could precede and become a basis for psychological unity. (19) It is also ironical that foreign rule which denies individual liberty and discourages regional self-determination can paradoxically help to temporarily consolidate a loose psychological unity and galvanize an amorphous national sentiment so that a nation-in-waiting gets ready to emerge at an optimal point in time to justify and uphold the ideal of liberty. This process may take a long time and may even span successive foreign dominations. "There is none of the modern nations in Europe which has not had to pass through a phase more or less prolonged, more or less complete, of foreign domination in order to realize its nationality. In Russia and England it was the domination of a foreign conquering race which rapidly became a ruling caste and was in the end assimilated and absorbed, in Spain the succession of the Roman, Goth and Moor, in Italy the overlordship of the Austrian, in the Balkans the long suzerainty of the Turk, in Germany the transient yoke of Napoleon. But in all cases the essential has been a shock or a pressure which could either waken a loose psychological unity to the necessity of organizing itself from within or would crush out, dispirit or deprive of power, vitality and reality the more obstinate factors of disunion." (20)
The important thing is that the psychological unity underlying a nation-idea has to develop and over-rule other variables. A mere external unity can be both a deterrent as well as a motivator for the psychological unity. Nature uses various combinations and circumstances to move towards its goal of developing the "nation" as a viable collective unit. Often, a variable period of foreign rule may be needed to rouse a people steeped in inertia, ignorance or moral and economic deprivation. That does not mean that foreign rule can be a panacea. "It is obvious that foreign rule can only endure so long as political consciousness can be either stifled by violence or hypnotized into inactivity. The moment the nation becomes politically self-conscious, the doom of the alien preponderance is sealed."(21)
Foreign domination in India
The role of foreign rule in nation-making varies across the time-fields in history: "..in some cases the phenomenon of foreign domination is momentary and imperfect, in others long-enduring and complete, in others often repeated in various forms. In some instances the foreign element is rejected, its use once over, in others it is absorbed, in others accepted with more or less assimilation for a longer or briefer period as a ruling caste. The principle is the same, but it is worked variously by Nature according to the needs of the particular case." (22) India is special as all types of foreign rule with multifarious implications have been experimented here and yet the momentum for unity persisted as an "obstinate subconscious necessity." (23) As an "extreme illustration of a general law"(24), "the conversion of the psychological unity on which nationhood is based into the external organized unity by which it is perfectly realized, has taken a period of more than two thousand years."(25) Of course, " it must be remembered that France, Germany, modern Italy took each a thousand or two thousand years to form and set into a firm oneness."(26, footnote).
In a famous editorial in Bande Mataram (April 30th, 1907), Sri Aurobindo explains that the making of a nation is a phenomenon of growth and not a process of manufacture. It is interesting that the foreigners who invaded India with the exception of the British got assimilated into the Indian culture. One great difficulty was in the area of religious tolerance. There are three types of outcome:
(a)The foreigners can be converted to the religion of the conquered people as happened with the ancient invaders of India,
(b)The conquered people can be converted en masse to the religion of the rulers as in Persia and other countries invaded by the Arabs,
(c)The two religions may become habituated to each other and mutually tolerant. In spite of continual conflicts, such a social fabric persisted in India even during Mohammedan rule. The attempt of Nature to "effect an organic readjustment in the body politic" (27) was yet present amidst the final anarchy that preceded British domination.
On the other hand, while the essence of Christianity was appreciated and assimilated in India, the British culture as well as its body politic could not be amalgamated with the Indian tradition. Such an amalgamation could be effectuated in two ways. Either the foreign body should have cut itself from its origin to take up home in the conquered country or else, it should have assimilated the subject State into the paramount State by the removal of all differences, inequalities, and conflicting interests. (28) It would have not been possible for the British to make such enormous sacrifices for assimilation. Indeed their reluctance to assimilate coupled with their efforts to crush individual liberty as well as regional self-determination facilitated and accelerated the nation-building process in India.
The resurrection of the Imperial Idea
We will now examine the third question raised by Sri Aurobindo in the beginning of Chapter V. He wants to know whether an economic, political and administrative unification can lead not only to a mere external unity but a real, living, organic unity. Why does he raise this question? In the drive towards establishing an international unity, a new world-order, a broad-scale external unification becomes mandatory. A new world-order would end in a fiasco if it could not manifest a living, organic, psychological unity-principle. Such a broad, trans-national unification moving towards a paramount State can rekindle the memory-traces of the empire-idea in the subconscious of the race.
This sounds preposterous in an age when the empire as an entity has perished, the nation as a psychological entity has evolved and after consolidation strives to surpass the limitations of nationalism to sub serve the growing need for internationalism. Has not the empire-idea disappeared from the earth like the dinosaur? The problem is with the human mind. Nothing is effaced from the subconscious or the collective unconscious of the race. The dinosaur may be physically defunct but creatively reconstructed in Jurassic Park, in animation films, in cartoon networks. It would therefore be not surprising if the specter of world-unity permits a resurgence of the empire-idea.
The nation-idea consolidated as an actuality after the empire perished as a political unit. Sri Aurobindo described, "Empires are still perishable political units; the nation is immortal. And so it will remain until a greater living unit can be found into which the nation-idea can merge in obedience to a superior attraction." (29) He suggests that the "greater living unit" into which the nation-idea merges may be akin to the empire-idea resurrected in a new poise with a novel imperial temperament in consonance with the Time-Spirit permeated with the value of internationalism, the spirit of globalization. Obviously, this new prototype of the empire-idea cannot replicate the old empire which was primarily a political entity consolidated by force that had to be mostly involuntarily imposed on the conquered constituents. Rather it must be based on a living, organic, psychological unity that arises from the matrix of voluntary co-operation of member-nations.
Can the empire-idea be resurrected in a higher poise? A clue from ancient history needs to be considered. Were all empires created only for political prowess? Suppose a great visionary monarch wanted to explore distant lands for the thirst of knowledge, the joy of adventure, the romance of expansion. Three thousand years back, such an exploration to expand the vistas of knowledge and experience also needed an extension of the empire! In ancient India, one more element was added to this motivation of expansion of the empire. When a monarch got exposed to the light of wisdom, the fountain-head of Truth, it became obligatory to spread that message at a global level. The message had to reach the masses that were hitherto not exposed to the light, not trained for the quest. The desire for enlightening the world that included the citizens of other kingdoms was the primary motivation; the military annexation and administrative expansion of the empire with an increasingly centripetal political control were means to create time-fields for that action. "The beginnings of the centripetal tendency in India go back to the earliest times of which we have record and are typified in the ideal of the Samrat or Chakravarti Raja and the military and political use of the Aswamedha and Rajasuya sacrifices. The two great national epics might almost have been written to illustrate this theme; for the one recounts the establishment of a unifying dharmarajya or imperial reign of justice, the other starts with an idealized description of such a rule pictured as once existing in the ancient and sacred past of the country." (30) This means that once the empire was expanded to disseminate high ideals like Justice, Truth, Righteousness, Dharma (the right way and conduct of life); the spread of the message was not done by brute force or coercion or involuntary conversion but through icons of culture and ideals of spirituality. That is why the national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata details journeys that span all over the Indian subcontinent. Rama travels from the north of India to Sri Lanka to spread the reign of Truth and Justice by overpowering the demons of ignorance and falsehood. Arjuna travels from the north of India to North-East India carrying the quest for adventure and romance and binds Princess Chitrangadha not with the victor's chains but with the lover's passion. And topping them all, Krishna uses the battle-field to consolidate the essence of spirituality - an endeavour that went on to nourish the centripetal tendency in India regardless of the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms for more than two millennia. Social anthropology needs to study how the centripetal tendency survived as a cultural essence in India when it could no longer be maintained by political power. This cultural essence outlived the fall of the great empires and foreign invasions to emerge as a template for cultural nationalism after two millennia. It is also interesting that much later than the time when the two epics were written, when Asoka expanded his empire and spread Buddhism, he used edicts that were always of "a recommendatory rather than an imperative character"(31) and never implied forceful conversion. Such anti-totalitarian attitudes preserved the essence of Indian culture.
We have been talking of ancient periods when in the absence of other means of communication, the expansion of the empire served a psychological purpose. What is important is that the physical annexation preceded the psychological development of the conquered people and ushered a new integer of unity. The political configuration of that unity did not persist with time but the cultural and spiritual connotations of that unity continued to persist so that even after two thousand years, India could stand up as a modern nation, reconstructed in polity, integrated in cultural pluralism and religious diversity.
This phenomenon of political unity preceding psychological consolidation though in different perspectives continues to recur in history. "But there have been instances in the evolution of the nation in which the political unity preceded and became a basis for the psychological as in the union of Scotch, English and Welsh to form the British nation. There is no insurmountable reason why a similar evolution should not take place on a larger scale and an imperial unity be substituted for a national unity." (32)
The trend to expand and conquer to usher a reign of unity among people not exposed to high ideals was an innately imperial subconscious necessity in the political psyche. Thousands of years back, when education was not universalized, when communication was not globalized, the expansion of the empire was the modus operandi for the dissemination of high ideals. Times have changed but the memory traces of imperial groupings in the subconscious of the race act as templates for a new world-order that encompasses multiple national units. Sri Aurobindo describes that the new trans-national movement can proceed in two different directions:
(a) A FEDERATION OF FREE NATIONS, or
(b) DISTRIBUTION OF THE EARTH INTO A FEW GREAT EMPIRES OR IMPERIAL* HEGEMONIES. (33)
[*Imperial here is used in the trans-national sense and not in the historical sense of a colonization presided by an Emperor]
He hinted that a practical combination of the two ideas can even become a tangible possibility "and the combination, if realized made the foundation of an enduring new order of things." (34)
Today, the "nation" is a living unit. Can the imperial or trans-national idea be resurrected in a new poise with voluntary co-operation of collaborative nations as a living, vibrant global unit?
1. CWSA 25, pg.304
2. Ibid, pg.291
3. Ibid, pg.304
4. Ibid, pg.309-310
5. Ibid, pg.306
6. Ibid, pg.310
8. Ibid, pg.304-305
9. Ibid, pg.305-306
10. Ibid, pg.307
11. Ibid, pg.305
12. Ibid, pg.306
13. Ibid, pg.310
16. Ibid, pg.306
17. Ibid, pg.307
18. Ibid, pg.309
19. Ibid, pg.311
20. Ibid, pg.309
21. CWSA 06-07, pg.365
22. CWSA 25, pg.308-309
23. Ibid, pg.308
26. Ibid, footnote
27. CWSA 06-07, pg.369
29. CWSA 25, pg.310
30. Ibid, pg.308
31. CWSA 20, pg.393
32. CWSA 25, pg.311
Date of Update: 18-Oct-21
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu