Readings in Chapter IV
The Inadequacy of the State Idea
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". (1) 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".(2)
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 to 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 attempted 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" (3) 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 recently by State philosophies, its ill-developed ethical conscience." (4).
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". (5) 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". (6) 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." (7) [What he wrote in 1915 was 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. (8) It could result in what he termed in 1915 as ORGANISED STAGNANCY (9) 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" often used by critics 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.)
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". (10) 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".(11)
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". (12) 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".(13)
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 "organised blundering" and "evil" with a sprinkling of good. (14) Sri Aurobindo notes that despite such hindrance, Nature marches 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." (15)
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." (16)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." (17)
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. (18) 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 (19).]
*Incidentally that particular car project which was shifted to Gujarat stopped production in 2019.
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."(20)
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; a claim which Sri Aurobindo viewed "as an exaggeration and a fiction".(21) 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."(22)
(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". (23) 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".(24) (Ibid).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". (25) 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. 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." (26) 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 coterie of Marxist intellectuals successfully lobbied to ban the teaching of English at the primary level, overthrowing a nearly two century's 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.]
A new addition to the State's bullying techniques in the 21st century is the techno-savvy cult of disinformation propagated through State-controlled media which turns out to be more universal in disruptive consequences than the brain-washing maneuvers of the Cold War times could achieve.
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."(27)
The business of the State
Sri Aurobindo was specific that the State has not only its shortcomings but a designated limit beyond which its real utility ceases. The State idea can neither offer a pervasive force of collective development nor a panacea for all problems of co-operative action. He lists the business of the State in accordance with the contemporary idea of socialism and as long as the State "continues to be a necessary element in human life and growth" (indicating that the State too can be surpassed by an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity of higher-order anarchy):
a. To provide all possible facilities for co-operative action,
b. To remove all disabilities and obstacles that that interfere with co-operative action,
c. To remove all really harmful waste and friction in collective life though it has to be acknowledged that "a certain amount of waste and friction is necessary and useful to all natural action",
d. To remove avoidable injustice,
e. To secure for every individual a just and equal chance of self-development in consonance with nature(temperamental characteristics and personality variables) and one's extent of powers(achievement motivation, technical skill, professional expertise, intellectual acumen). (28)
However, this socialistic duty of the State can be jeopardized by "unnecessary interference with the freedom of man's growth." (29) In fact, it is not only the State functioning but any sort of co-operative action that can be harmful if the individual has to be immolated at the altar of a communal egoism. Thus if a community is bent upon to maintain its cultural identity due to historical reasons like prolonged injustice, then it could go to illogical extents to subordinate individual aspirations within the community or sub-State so that its agenda is not compromised. That is how when such communities, especially in underdeveloped regions take up prolonged agitation in forms ranging from week- long strikes and bandhs to terrorism , the first casualty is usually the education of students whose individual contributions could have been torch-bearers of progress. The same rule can apply in a different perspective to communities which appear to be politically, socially or culturally stable. Such a community would show a knee-jerk reaction if its peace, security and contentedness are disturbed by an "impatient individualism" (30) disrupting the monotony of a settled harmony. After all, "it is the individual who progresses and compels the rest to progress; the instinct of the collectivity is to stand still in its established order. Progress, growth, realization of wider being, give his greatest sense of happiness to the individual; status, secure ease, to the collectivity." (31)
That the individual actually compels the rest to follow has also been acknowledged, albeit with reservations by hard-core communists. A paradoxical situation arose as Marxist historians were speculating how Mahatma Gandhi could influence the masses in India. Some believed that as an after-effect of the 1917 Russian revolution, the masses had been revolutionized by their own experience, a phenomenon which was utilized by Gandhi. Not all could agree. It was an undisputed fact that Gandhi's individual charisma stirred the Indian masses in a way that was unique. Lenin assessed Gandhi's contribution in a positive way in the discussions of the 1920 colonial thesis of the Communist International and advised Communists in India to unite with the Gandhi-led anti-imperialist movement while remaining independent and critical. This was remarkable as they simultaneously held Gandhi "wrong" for many reasons, viz. his absolutization of non-violence, his belief in God, his lack of a scientific theory of social evolution, his downplaying of class-struggle. (32)
The conflict between individualism and collectivism cannot be resolved unless the collectivity transcends its present physical and economic character and evolves into a self-conscious collective soul. Till then the ideal of human unity remains a chimera. In the meanwhile the march of forces is expected to lead towards a broader external or administrative unity in order to prepare and accustom the mind-set to an increasing commonality. In 1915-1916, Sri Aurobindo wrote that this broader unity through State machinery could take two forms:
(a) "a grouping of powerful and organized States enjoying carefully regulated and legalized relations with each other", a speculation that became a prophecy with the formation of the European Union; or
(b) " a substitution of a single World-State for the present half chaotic half ordered comity of nations, -- be the form of that World-State a single Empire like the Roman or a federated unity", a visionary trajectory that yet remains to be worked out. (33)
However, this administrative unity cannot suffice unless there is evolution of the collective soul in the matrix of social consciousness. Something "more profound, internal and real" has to manifest to make human unity "really healthy, durable or beneficial over all the true line of human destiny". (34) If this does not happen, history will repeat itself in newer circumstances, the same mistakes (the likes of which led to the World Wars) can again occur, and we have to start afresh with a new reconstructive age of confusion and anarchy. We can still avoid that painful ordeal "by subordinating mechanical means to our true development through a moralized and even a spiritualized humanity united in its inner soul and not only in its outer life and body". (35)
1. CWSA 25, pg.296
3. Ibid, pg.299
4. Ibid, pg.298
5. Ibid, pg.299
9. Ibid, pg.300
10. Ibid, pg.297
11. Ibid, pg.296
13. CWM 3, Centenary Edition, pg137-138[ talking about Paris, 1897-1904]
14. CWSA 25, pg.297
15. Ibid, pg.299, footnote
16. Ibid, pg.298
18. Ibid, pg.300
23. Ibid, pg.301
26. Ibid, pg.301
29. Ibid, pg.302
32. Sen, Mohit: An autobiography. Abridged by A.K.Sahay, National Book Trust, India, 2007, pg. 395
33. CWSA 25, pg.302
35. Ibid, pg.303
Date of Update: 21-Sep-21
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu