Readings in Chapter XXVIII
Diversity in Oneness
Unity in diversity is a common theme that is eulogized all over the world. It indicates that we must construct an ideal of unity to harmonize the great diversity that characterizes our universe. This unity can be constructed in every sphere of life but meets the greatest difficulty when the issue comes to unify mankind marked by a veritable diversity of races, religions, cultures, nations and what not! Obviously the human being has to expand one's values of fraternity, equality, social justice, moral responsibility and transcultural assets to construct an unity which nevertheless remains fragile and shaky, always vulnerable to be usurped by centrifugal forces triggered off by exaggerated individual and group identities.
Sri Aurobindo uses a different approach based on the traditional Indian concept of the primal Oneness from which the multiplicity has evolved and into which the multiplicity can get consummated. This Oneness is the Great Void teeming with infinite possibilities. It is the Oneness that is represented by a basic Unity- substrate of Consciousness behind all the variegated multiplicity. The Unity permits the diversity. The Diversity is thus rooted in the Unity-principle, in the underlying primal consciousness. As the Diversity is poised in the Oneness, the phrase Diversity in Oneness represents the truth better than the term Unity in Diversity. This is the rationale of the heading of this chapter.
Instead of constructing a fragile facade of unity amidst the diversity, it is more spontaneous to consider a central unity that permits the diversity. If one can identify with the central unity in terms of consciousness, one can explore the diversity in the spirit of Oneness. Sri Aurobindo advocates approaching the problem of diversity from this poise of Oneness.
If the Oneness permits diversity, then the Unity-principle fostered by the Oneness cannot be a uniformity but a diversified unity (In The Life Divine [chapter II], Sri Aurobindo uses the term "multitudinous unity"). Uniformity indicates some sort of over-centralisation and Sri Aurobindo opines that it is not "the healthy method of life" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.513) as it fosters a mechanical order that disregards liberty, inhibits freedom. Indeed, the very fact of a basic Unity permitting an endless Diversity incorporates the component of unqualified freedom, unrestricted liberty.
It could be argued that a stable uniformity would give a better organized life. But such an arrangement could come at the cost of liberty. It is also a chimera to consider that liberty is synonymous with disharmony. A liberty that arises from the unity-substrate of consciousness would give rise to a more spontaneous order that would be more durable than a mechanically constructed uniformity.
"Order is indeed the law of life, but not an artificial regulation. The sound order is that which comes from within as a result of a nature that has discovered itself and found its own law and the law of its relations with others. Therefore the truest order is that which is founded on the greatest possible liberty; for liberty is at once the condition of vigorous variation and the condition of self-finding." (Ibid)
Thus the enshrinement of liberty in our conscious repertoire serves two purposes:
(a) It facilitates the spontaneous functioning of diversified groups, fostering a natural harmony in the matrix of Oneness;
(b) It allows the individual to find one's own source of harmony as a part of self-finding. To harmonise the Diversity in the world, one needs to first harmonise one's own discordant parts around a central Unity-principle.
Unity in Human Race -- Early human groupings
Unity in human race is a contentious issue. Though the modern mind has tried to conceive of unity through some sort of uniformity based on national, administrative or political narratives, the initial human groupings were spontaneously formed on the basis of liberty. The earliest natural groupings of mankind took individual variations into consideration, resulting in natural associations of free individuals. As Sri Aurobindo points out, "Nature secures variation by division into groups and insists on liberty by the force of individuality in the members of the group. Therefore the unity of the human race to be entirely sound and in consonance with the deepest laws of life must be founded on free groupings, and the groupings again must be the natural association of free individuals". (Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo's statement on free individuals forming early groups leads to a pertinent query: Were primitive groups so mature to consider individual differences? Perhaps such a doubt arises as we often tend to stereotype the "primitives". Anthropological exploration has actually showed that even in the early food-gathering societies, individual psychological characteristics existed to the same degree as in civilized societies and were given credence within groups though probably the differences were considered according to temperament and ability.(Cameron, Kenneth Neil, Humanity and Society. A World History, Aakar, India, Indian Edition,2009, pg.26)
Unity in Human Race -- The modern dilemma
In our zeal for uniformity expected to aid administrative work, consolidation of the military, economic growth and political interests, an artificial life mimicking unity has been fostered in the modern world. The question is whether we could re-organize human unity on the central principle of Oneness and its flagship, liberty. Sri Aurobindo admits that it would be difficult in contemporary conditions to replicate the initial leverage given to liberty in consolidating human groupings, yet "it is an ideal which ought to be kept in view, for the more we can approximate to it, the more can we be sure of being on the right road".
The reinstatement of liberty in human groupings is really difficult as Sri Aurobindo anticipated. Each human being itself has a plurality of social identities. As Amartya Sen writes, "A Hutu labourer from Kigali may be pressurized to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis, and yet he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandian, an African, a labourer, and a human being". (Sen, Amartya: Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny, Penguin Books, USA, 2006,pg 4) Sen points out that despite the plurality of identities and their different implications, it is difficult to critically evaluate the role of choice in determining the cogency and relevance of particular identities.
Regrettably, mankind today has lost the instinctive choice of role-identities that characterized the groupings of free individuals. The civilized man has become artificial; the marginalized tribes have been exploited to an extent where they have lost their natural instinctual harmony.
We exist no more in the matrix of free life that marked primitive societies. We have progressed in our thinking, culture and wisdom, and we have to reinstate the poise of liberty in a new denouement of unity. It is a more uphill task now to search for a consciousness perspective of Oneness that facilitates a flowering of liberty in the depths of the being that can facilitate a conscious and intuitive choice of a role-identity that fosters human unity. Short of a spiritual solution, it is difficult to conceive of a true unity of mankind.
Apropos The Tower of Babel and Diversity of languages
In his study of the necessity of natural groupings in the context of Nature's insistence on the diversity of languages as a "great principle of division", Sri Aurobindo recalls the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel (as told in Genesis 11: 1-9) that spoke of "the diversity of tongues as a curse laid on the race". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.514) Indeed, the construction of the tower that purportedly was to rise to heaven, was viewed by God as an act of defiance and blasphemy by the people who had been united after the Great Flood in speaking a single language. God, it seems, confounded their speech so that they would no longer understand each other and would get scattered all over the world (An Islamic version by the 9th century theologian, al-Tabari described how God destroyed a tower in "Babil" and the common Syriac language was confused into 72 languages. Scholars like Yahya Emerick contested this view by arguing that the theme of God separating humanity on the basis of language was alien to Islam). (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel)
However instead of viewing God's action of diversification of languages as a curse for the pride of humanity, some interpreters have regarded it as an explanatory aetiology of cultural differences in the old World where Babel symbolized the cradle of civilization. Sri Aurobindo opined that the phenomenon of diversity of languages was "rather a blessing than a curse, a gift to mankind rather than a disability laid upon it".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 514) He was of course practical enough to renounce the "purposeless exaggeration" and "excessive pullulation" by the numerous dialectical variations of the dozen or more great tongues together with the aboriginal survivals of tribal speech that served no purpose "in the expression of a real diversity of spirit and culture." (Ibid) However he was confident that in present times, the antipathies generated by the diversity of languages would be overcome by a growing interpenetration of cultures in a world progressing towards an increasingly global consciousness.(Ibid, pg.515)
Advantages of Diversity of Language
Sri Aurobindo lists two advantages of the diversity of language:
(a) A use of unification, and
(b) A use of variation. (Ibid)
As an agent of unification, a language is "an intellectual, aesthetic and expressive bond which tempers division where division exists and strengthens unity where unity has been achieved. Especially it gives self-consciousness to national or racial unity and creates the bond of a common self-expression and a common record of achievement". (Ibid)
As an agent of variation, "it is a means of national differentiation and perhaps the most powerful of all, not a barren principle of variation merely, but a fruitful and helpful differentiation. For each language is the sign and power of the soul of the people which naturally speaks it. Each develops therefore its own peculiar spirit, thought-temperament, way of dealing with life and knowledge and experience. If it receives and welcomes the thought, the life-experience, the spiritual impact of other nations , still it transforms them into something new of its own and by that power of transmutation it enriches the life of humanity with its fruitful borrowings and does not merely repeat what had been gained elsewhere."(Ibid)
"Therefore it is of the utmost value to a nation, a human group-soul, to preserve its language and to make of it a strong and living cultural instrument. A nation, race or people which loses its language cannot live its whole life or its real life. And this advantage to the national life is at the same time an advantage to the general life of the human race". (Ibid. pg.515-516)
Language as an unique instrument of group-individuality
The case of the United States of America
It is imperative that in the grand orchestra of human collectivities, the universal harmony has to be constructed from the unique contributions of individual group-souls. A global human unity that surpasses all variations in humanity has to be construed in terms of a cultural commonality. A particular group can only enrich the whole if it has an unique culture. The commonest expression of any culture is through its language and an enriched language therefore counts to the lofty cause of human unity.
It therefore logically follows that a particular group that may be very powerful in military strength and financial reserves may be not have a cultural advantage if it does not have an unique language or thrives on a borrowed language for historical reasons. The classic example is the case of the United States of America. Writing at the fag end of 1917, Sri Aurobindo commented:
"How much a distinct human group loses by not possessing a separate tongue of its own or by exchanging its natural self-expression for an alien form of speech, can be seen by the examples of ... the United States of America and Ireland...
"The life of the United States alone tends and strives to become a great and separate cultural existence, but its success is not commensurate with its power. Culturally, it is still to a great extent a province of England. Neither its literature, in spite of two or three great names, nor its art nor its thought, nor anything else on the higher levels of the mind, has been able to arrive at a vigorous maturity independent in its soul-type. And this because its instruments of self-expression, the language which the national mind ought to shape and be in turn shaped by it, was formed and must continue to be formed by another country with a different mentality and must there find its centre and its law of development".(Ibid, pg.517)
Today, in the 21st century, the United States of America does not yet have an official language though English is the defacto language for all practical purpose in the country. Perhaps the founding fathers of USA did not want to disturb the multi-lingual milieu of the country and did not want to upset the Native Americans. Of course, such concerns, if any, were not a deterrent at one time to forbid enslaved Africans to use their native languages or in punishing Native Americans in boarding schools for speaking their own language. As of today, "American English" arises from a linguistic continuum of dialects and does not represent a mainstream accent.
Sri Aurobindo muses how medieval European nations derived their own linguistic identities from Latin in consonance with their own needs to evolve characteristic instruments of self-expression but under modern conditions but American culture could not obtain that advantage from English. (Ibid, pg.517) On the contrary, "the whole of America, in spite of its powerfully independent political and economic being, has tended to be culturally a province of Europe, the south and centre by their dependence on the Spanish, and the north by its dependence on the English language". (Ibid, pg.516) Yet, instead of creating a modified provincialism, it would be more important to evolve a "central intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual life" (Ibid) of each unique group formation.
The case of Ireland
Sri Aurobindo felt anguished that the orchestrated loss of the Irish language (Gaelic) has been not only a loss to Ireland but to the whole of humanity. Ostensibly, this loss was perpetrated by the Anglo-British administration, the Catholic Church (the Protestant Church later made minor efforts for revival of Irish) and other factors like immigration to USA and Canada. He wrote:
"But the forcible imposition of a foreign tongue and the turning of a nation into a province left Ireland for so many centuries mute and culturally stagnant, a dead force in the life of Europe. Nor can we count as an adequate compensation for this loss the small indirect influence of the race upon English culture or the few direct contributions made by gifted Irishmen forced to pour their natural genius into a foreign mould of thought. Even when Ireland in her struggle for freedom was striving to recover her free soul and give it a voice, she has been hampered by having to use a tongue which does not naturally express her spirit and peculiar bent. In time she may conquer the obstacle, make this tongue her own, force it to express her, but it will be long, if ever, before she can do it with the same richness, force and unfettered individuality as she would have done in her Gaelic speech. That speech she had tied to recover but the natural obstacles have been and are likely always to be too heavy and too strongly established for any complete success in her endeavour".(Ibid, pg.517)
How true! Though Irish has the constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, the 2016 census data showed that only 1,761,420 subjects responded that they were able to speak Irish.
The case of India
During the time when European nations thrived on colonization, the colonies were sought to me made their cultural replicas despite the fact that the colonies were "really separate peoples in the psychological sense". (Ibid, pg.516) India was no exception. Writing in 1917 when India was under British rule, Sri Aurobindo remarked : "Nothing has stood the way of the rapid progress in India, nothing has more successfully prevented her self-finding and development under modern conditions than the long overshadowing of the Indian tongues as cultural instruments by the English language". However, he also noted that one sub-nation in India rebelled against this imposition to develop its own language, "made that for long its principal preoccupation, gave to it its most original minds and most living energies, getting through everything else perfunctorily, neglecting commerce, doing politics as an intellectual and oratorical pastime, -- that is Bengal which first recovered its soul, respiritualised itself, forced the whole world to hear of its great spiritual personalities, gave it the first modern Indian poet and Indian scientist of world-wide fame and achievement, restored the moribund art of India to life and power, first, as a reward in the outer life, arrived at a vital political consciousness and a living political movement not imitative and derivative in its spirit and in its central ideal". (Ibid, pg.517-518)
In a footnote added in 1949-50, Sri Aurobindo quipped that the situation had changed and these remarks were "no longer applicable to the actual sate of things in India". (Ibid, pg, 518) True, India had become independent and was no longer obliged to England. Yet, was the changed scenario also indicative of a stage of devaluation that follows every mighty creative upsurge!
A common language versus diversity
Is it possible that a common language could foster the cause of world-unity? That would require a sacrifice of the advantages of the diversity of languages. This could only be worthwhile if the common language was not merely an imposition or namesake but would foster a living unity. However, historical evidence has not been convincing to date. Sri Aurobindo examines the history of universal tongues spoken by people to whom they were not natural. He finds that they became dead tongues and survived only "when they were decomposed and broken up into new derivative languages". (Ibid, pg.518) He gives the example of Latin which after a period of domination during the 1st century, became practically dead and could not be rejuvenated by Christianity. "A rapid and vigorous new life only grew up when the languages which appeared out of the detritus of dying Latin or the old languages which had not been lost took its place as the complete instruments of national culture. For it is not enough that the natural language should be spoken by the people; it must be the expression of its higher life and thought". (Ibid, pg.519) It is after a gap that developed between classical Latin and the common spoken vulgar Latin that the Romance languages developed from the dialects of the latter (Britannica Ready Reference Enclyopedia,2005, New Delhi,pg.21). It is the spoken language that is more important for viability, a reason why Romance languages were derived not from classical Latin but from the popular vulgar version. Likewise , "A language that survives only as patois or a provincial tongue like Welsh after the English conquest or Breton or Provencal in France or as Czech survived once in Austria or Ruthenian and Lithuanian in imperial Russia, languishes, becomes sterile and does not serve all the true purpose of survival". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.519). Breton, an insular Celtic language has already been classified as "severely endangered" by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Provencal, an older version of Occitan language had several subdialects but in 2007, all Occitan dialects were merged. Ruthenian is now considered to be a predecessor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn and Ukrainian languages though it is not known whether Ruthenian was a separate language or set of dialects of Old East Slavic.
As language is the index of cultural uniqueness, its diversity can contribute to the richness of culture. "Diversity of language is worth keeping because of diversity of cultures and differentiation of soul-groups are worth keeping and because without that diversity life cannot have full play; for in its absence there is a danger, almost an inevitability of decline and stagnation".(Ibid) However, if a common language could replace the linguistic diversity, it would have facilitated "political peace, economic well-being, perfect administration, the solution of a hundred material problems, as did on a lesser scale the Roman unity in old times". (Ibid) The danger is that it could also lead to an "uncreative sterilisation of the mind" (Ibid) and the stagnation of soul-qualities. Whenever a great upheaval occurs in a nation, there is a stirring of the national culture commensurate with the political, economic or practical crisis. Could a common language be helpful to tide over such a crisis in a nation with great diversity? It could actually cause a greater problem if the zeal for inducing harmony compromised the sense of freedom. "The peace, well-being and settled order of the human world is a thing eminently to be desired as a basis for a great world-culture in which all humanity must be united; but neither of these unities, the outward or inward, ought to be devoid of an element even more important than peace, order and well-being, -- freedom and vigour of life, which can only be assured by variation and by the freedom of the group and of the individual. Not then a uniform unity, not a logically simple, a scientifically rigid, a beautifully neat and mechanical sameness, but a living oneness full of healthy freedom and variation is the ideal which we should keep in view and strive to get realised in man's future".(Ibid, pg.520) The question is whether a common language could satisfy variability and yet induce a settled peace without compromising freedom?
A principle of Unity in Diversity
A greater "unrealized principle of free union" (Ibid, pg. 521) must be the guiding principle for world-unity or a World-State. The problem is that an excessive stress on uniformity and centralization may lead to the disappearance of "necessary variations and indispensable liberties". (Ibid, pg. 520) This may invariably lead to a resurgence of the impulse of "old separatism" fostered by the forces of "strong group individualism" and a vigorous cultural diversity (Ibid). Standing towards the end of World War I, Sri Aurobindo observed that it was still difficult to produce or maintain a free unity without sacrificing diversity. Would the then British Empire be able to create a "national individuality in a supra-national life" without obliterating the essence and cultural uniqueness of its provinces and colonies? (Ibid, pg.521) At best it could have achieved "a common Anglicisation" (Ibid) that would be a far cry from the eulogized free union. Likewise the American model of dealing with its States seemed to allow liberty in mostly mechanical variations while all departures from the norm arising from profounder inner variation were to be discouraged.(Ibid,pg.520) The pre-World War I Germany tried to impose a unity only in form. (Ibid, pg. 520-521) The English system favoured a local independence but retained the vigour of unity in the metropolis while relegating the rest of the colonial system subservient to the Anglo-Saxon idea. (Ibid, pg.521) In Switzerland where the race was divided by three foreign cultures, a common Swiss culture could not evolve. (Ibid)Thus everywhere and under all conditions, a free unity could not organically arise. "Nothing was suggested at any time in the way of a solution except some sort of bunch or rather bouquet system, unifying its clusters not by the living stalk of a common origin or united past, for that does not exist, but by an artificial thread of administrative unity". (Ibid)
Thus even though unity is imperative, national unity was sought to be established by crushing out local units. Sri Aurobindo muses if a new principle of group-variation could replace the nation-unit. (Ibid) During the formation of nation-states, the rich cultural heritage of the small units was lost yet the principle of "variative diversity" persisted in some way or the other, even to the extent of reflecting a continental commonality (Ibid, pg.522). In a World-State, this advantage would be missing. As the outer sources of diversity would have to be significantly disregarded, the inner essence of diversity would have to be preserved in a new denouement in the matrix of unity. If this is not done and the Unitarian idea is allowed to forcefully prevail, the nation States would become mere geographical provinces or administrative departments of a mechanized World-State. This could lead to a revolt from within or a stagnation or collapse of the ideal of world-unity. "A gospel of Anarchism might enforce itself for example, and break down the world-order for a new creation. The question is whether there is not somewhere a principle of unity in diversity by which this method of action and reaction, creation and destruction, realisation and relapse cannot be, if not altogether avoided, yet mitigated in its action and led to a more serene and harmonious working". (Ibid)
Date of Update: 17-Oct-23
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu