Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Revised draft of the Readings of Chapters

Readings in Chapter XI

The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unit


Motivations for human unity

Sri Aurobindo examines the different types of motivations that operate behind the unification of human race:

(a) The real motivation of human unity arises from the "intellectual, idealistic and emotional parts" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 355) of the human psyche to sub serve the underlying spirit and sense of need of unity in the race.

(b) The intellectual and emotional factors need to be consolidated by economic and other material motivations. However, economic causes alone cannot be the harbinger of unity. Economic causes "are partly permanent and therefore elements of strength and secure fulfilment, partly artificial and temporary and therefore elements of insecurity and weakness". (Ibid)

(c) The motivation for political unity is less durable and more fluctuating than the other motivators of unity. In fact, a garb of unity may be politically preferred "due to the desire of the successful nations to possess, enjoy and exploit the rest of the world at ease without the peril incurred by their own formidable rivalries and competitions and rather by some convenient understanding and compromise among themselves".(Ibid) This is why Sri Aurobindo commented that the political factors in human unification were "the baser part in the amalgam; their presence may even vitiate the whole result and lead in the end to a necessary dissolution and reversal of whatever unity may be initially accomplished." (Ibid)

Despite these conflicting motivations, the urge for human unity at a global level continues to seek ways for fulfilment. Ordinarily, the basic structure of transnational unity is based on common interests, "at first by a sort of understanding and initial union for the most pressing common needs, arrangements of commerce, arrangements of peace and war, arrangements for the common arbitration of disputes, arrangements for the policing of the world". (Ibid, pg. 356) Such common interests may appear rather crude when compared to the high utopian idealism that upholds the concept of unity but are nevertheless the stepping stones that would "naturally develop by the pressure of the governing idea and the inherent need into a closer unity and even perhaps in the long end into a common supreme government which may endure till the defects of the system established and the rise of other ideals and tendencies inconsistent with its maintenance lead either to a new radical change or to its entire dissolution into its natural elements and constituents". (Ibid)

At the time of writing this treatise in 1916, two types of aggregates had gained prominence. The first type was the evolution of the natural homogeneous nation and the second type was the artificial heterogeneous empire; both had certain advantages but also inherent disadvantages that "inflicted some wound on the complete human ideal". (Ibid, pg. 357).

The complete human ideal needed a graded approximation of individual and collective free life and liberty to a centre of concentrated State power so as to create a new model of unity. So far this has not been perfectly effectuated as the "active and stimulating participation" of most of the subjects that was feasible in the early free human groupings was not possible in larger aggregates.

Sri Aurobindo gives examples from early Greek, Roman and Indian city-states and clan-nations to demonstrate that the innate democratic urge towards FREEDOM and EQUALITY operates along two inter-related dimensions:

1. The dimension of political and civil life

2. The dimension of social life.

The Democratic spirit in political and civil life

If the democratic spirit is very strong as was in the earlier small communities, then "forms as absolute monarchy or a despotic oligarchy, an infallible Papacy or sacrosanct theocratic class cannot flourish at ease in such an environment; they lack that advantage of distance from the mass and that remoteness from exposure to the daily criticism of the individual mind on which their prestige depends and they have not, to justify them, the pressing need of uniformity among large multitudes and over vast areas which they elsewhere serve to establish and maintain".(Ibid, pg. 358) With the growth of large empires that were historically needed for consolidation of power, strengthening of security, enlargement of homogeneity and enforcement of unity, the liberty and free life of individuals and regional groupings had to be subordinated and sacrificed. The small free unit had to be subjugated and surpassed at the altar of the larger concentrated unity. However the spirit of democracy is innate in human psyche and monarchical regimes had to give way to structured democratic set-ups though the equation between freedom of individuals and groups with the paramount unity of concentrated State power has yet to be satisfactorily worked out. However, even through clumsy barriers, the Time-Spirit is struggling to re-define the democratic spirit of freedom and equality in global terms that would surpass the paramount centers of State-power in a new equation.

The Democratic spirit in social life

When the leverage of political power moves centripetally to form a paramount center of a large concentrated unity blurring out the harmonious diversity of the small free but spontaneously democratic and vibrant units, there appears a dominant class or classes, coteries of vested interests, exploitative groups , governing syndicates , "while the great mass of the community is left in a relative torpor and enjoys only a minimum and indirect share of that vitality in so far as it is allowed to filter down from above and indirectly affect the grosser, poorer and narrower life below". (Ibid) The result is that concomitant with the political shift in the leverage of power, there is a simultaneous restructuring of social systems. In the medieval West, the free democratic spirit in social life was jeopardized by the Church and monarchical power. In the East, theocracy, the caste system and absolute kingship brought stagnation in social life. It was only in the 20th century when empires began to give way to Nation-States and the concept of globalization set in that attempts were initiated to recover the "general vividness of life and dynamic force of culture and creation" (Ibid, pg. 360) that had once sustained the sap of life.


The unique free unit

The small free unit typified in the early Greek, Roman and Indian city-states and clan-nations had a certain "vividness of life and dynamic force of culture and creation" (Ibid, pg. 360) which could not be sustained with the same tenacity in the later larger national aggregates. It is interesting to note how that freedom of thought gave rise to two dimensions that created the foundation of the European culture; the aesthetic-philosophical and the ethical-political:

(a) "The cultural and civic life of the Greek city, of which Athens was the supreme achievement, a life in which living itself was an education, where the poorest as well as the richest sat together in the theatre to see and judge the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides and the Athenian trader and shopkeeper took part in the subtle philosophical conversations of Socrates, created for Europe not only its fundamental political types and ideals but practically all its basic forms of intellectual, philosophical, literary and artistic culture".(Ibid, pg. 360-361)

(b) "The equally vivid political, juridical and military life of the single city of Rome created for Europe its types of political activity, military discipline and science, jurisprudence of law and equity and even its ideals of empire and colonization."(Ibid, pg. 361).

That freedom of thought and expression was a hall-mark of the free social groupings in consonance with their cultural connotations. Thus, in India, "it was that early vivacity of spiritual life of which we catch glimpses in the Vedic, Upanishadic and Buddhistic literature, which created the religions, philosophies, spiritual disciplines that have since by direct or indirect influence spread something of their spirit and knowledge over Asia and Europe".(Ibid) Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the uniqueness of the free unit was "the complete participation not of a limited class, but of the individual generally in the many-sided life of the community, the sense each had of being full of the energy of all and of a certain freedom to grow, to be himself, to achieve, to think, to create in the undammed flood of that universal energy".(Ibid)

The Woman and the Worker

The early free life in the old city states and clan-nations had certain incurable vital defects culminating in unpardonable injustice to the woman and the working class both in the West and in the East. Sri Aurobindo succinctly explains, "In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman. In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners". (Ibid, pg. 361-362)

These problems were not resolved in ancient times except some half-hearted initial attempts in Rome 'but they never went farther than faint hints of a future possibility". (Ibid, pg. 362) It was imperative therefore that a realignment of the modern society should focus rightfully on economic serfdom and the subjugation of woman which were "the master tendencies of the hour". (Ibid, pg. 356) It was necessary for the historical forces to progress "rapidly towards a rigorous State socialism and equality" (Ibid) that would equitably reinstate the value of the woman and the worker. When Sri Aurobindo was writing this chapter in July, 1916, the feminist movement in the West was vigorously campaigning for the women's right to vote. That right was granted to some women in Britain in 1918 and to all women in 1928 while in the USA, the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 granted all women the right to vote. On the other hand, the Communist Manifesto (1848) had already given the clarion call to unite all workers of the world and this was inscribed on Marx's tombstone. The 1917 October revolution institutionalized this slogan which subsequently became the USSR State motto finding its place in the Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union, in 1919 Russian SF SR banknotes and on Soviet coins from 1921 to 1934. As for slavery, it was as late as 10th December, 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wherein Article 4 prohibited slave trade in all forms though it still persists covertly under the garb of debt bondage and human trafficking.

However, in the same breath, Sri Aurobindo had cautioned that new social tendencies would again appear and there would be a possibility of a "revolt of the human spirit against a burdensome and mechanical State collectivism" (Ibid) and perhaps there could emerge "a gospel of philosophic anarchism missioned to reassert man's incredible yearning for individual liberty and free self-fulfilment" (Ibid) or else there could be "unforeseen religious and spiritual revolutions" (Ibid) diverting mankind to a different denouement. Subsequent events unfolded all the possibilities he had envisaged in some form or the other long before a century could elapse.

Unity of small aggregates

One cardinal problem with early forms of human society was the difficulty in uniting different communities. "War remained their normal relation. All attempts at free federation failed, and military conquest was left as the sole means of unification". (Ibid, pg. 362) Sri Aurobindo dwells upon the mind-set behind this phenomenon: "The attachment to the small aggregate in which each man felt himself to be most alive had generated a sort of mental and vital insularity which could not accommodate itself to the new and wider ideas which philosophy and political thought, moved by the urge of larger needs and tendencies, brought into the field of life. Therefore the old States had to dissolve and disappear".(Ibid)

History therefore necessitated the creation of the national aggregate in the millennium that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Obviously this had a negative impact in certain areas of life and a resolution of conflicts was needed before "any real effort to develop not only a firmly organized but a progressive and increasingly perfected community, not only a strong mould of social life but the free growth and completeness of life itself within that mould".(Ibid, pg. 363). Sri Aurobindo advocates to study that cycle so that the lessons of history help the effort towards a yet larger aggregation without "the danger of new recoil" (Ibid) that may be temporarily inevitable but in the long run would not disrupt the "affirmation of a massive external unity". (Ibid)


Date of Update: 21-Apr-22

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu