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

Readings in Chapter XXXIV

The Religion of Humanity


From intellectual humanism to spiritual universalism

The ghost of the past and unborn spirits

As the world moves towards a global community, the significance of the human being surpasses the injunctions of race, creed, colour, nationality, status, political or social structures. Mankind is increasingly intolerant of wars, terrorism, class conflicts, oppression and exploitation of one group of people by others, cruelty, both moral and physical perpetrated by the individual, insurgent groups or the State.

The ghost of the past

Sri Aurobindo describes that in all such cases where mankind seems to be in the back foot, the ghost of the past haunts the scene:

"The ghosts of things dead are very troublesome actualities and they now abound, ghosts of dead religions, dead arts, dead moralities, dead political theories, which still claim either to keep their rotting bodies or to animate partly the existing body of things. Repeating obstinately their sacred formulas of the past, they hypnotise backward-looking minds and daunt even the progressive portion of humanity". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.564)

Sri Aurobindo's description of the surviving ghosts reminds of a famous short piece Tagore wrote (in Bengali) on the ghost of that which rules our lives (Kartar Bhoot). The people were feeling insecure when their guardian was not there anymore so the latter, in compassion for his subjects and with the consent of the gods, began ruling as a ghost. It was a very clever arrangement for the ghost need not have any headache for the future (the ghost after all has no mind), he can only run the administration by possessing people's psyche, loading it with the values of the past. People love nostalgia and so they were also happy, there was no need to anticipate about the future and they could happily go on ruminating the glory of the past.

A few persons who were afraid to speak their minds in daytime gathered at night and asked their guardian's ghost if the time had not yet come to dispossess his subjects.

The ghost replied that that was not his headache. It was the people who had bound him, it is they who have to unbound him.

The subjects murmured that the very thought of abandoning him made them somewhat insecure.

Their guardian replied that that itself was the phenomenon of possession by the ghost. It was in fact indicating the logic of the ghost.

It is a fact that we see the shadow of the ghost everywhere. There are insurgents who want to resurrect the ghost of bygone caliphates though they never speculate how such things could stand the test of time. There are administrations who take tough decisions against migrant groups, drive them away, erect walls at borders of countries or declare them stateless based on bitter experiences of the past but they overlook that the history of Homo sapiens is itself a history of migration since they started spreading from East Africa about 70,000 years before. There are religious zealots who think that the ghost of the past can alone counter the modern saga of usurpation of values though they never conceive that in a new world, DNA sequences might indicate our individual uniqueness more than our religious, cultural or national identities until the psycho-spiritual soul-principle becomes a harbinger of uniqueness in a Gnostic collectivity.

Unborn spirits

Yet all is not lost. There are also free souls who look towards the unborn future. There are visionary ideas in the realm of subtle thought which need instruments to act. "But there are too these unborn spirits which are still unable to take a definite body, but are already mind-born and exist as influences of which the human mind is aware". (Ibid) In 1918, Sri Aurobindo wrote that the response to these futuristic influences was "desultory and confused" (Ibid) ; it still remains so in the 21st century.

There was of course a reaction to the ghost of the past, a reaction whose resultant effects have been spectacular at times though there has not yet been a viable consolidation that overrides the vicissitudes of time. It resulted in a sort of religion of humanity - a sort of intellectual humanism, a sentimental appeal, a type of dogma with intellectual, psychological and practical effects. Sri Aurobindo traces this trend to the 18th century:

"The religion of humanity was mind-born in the eighteenth century, the manasa putra* of the rationalist thinkers who brought it forward as a substitute for the formal spiritualism of ecclesiastical Christianity. It tried to give itself a body in Positivism, which was an attempt to formulate the dogmas of this religion, but on too heavily and severely rationalistic a basis for acceptance even by an Age of Reason. Humanitarianism has been its most prominent emotional result. Philanthropy, social service and other kindred activities have been its outward expression of good works. Democracy, socialism, pacificism are to a great extent its by-products or at least owe much of their vigour to its inner presence".

(*Mind-born child, an expression of the Indian tradition) (Ibid, pg.564-565)


The intellectual religion of humanity

The intellectual religion of humanity that began to develop in the eighteen century became consolidated within a century to project mankind as the only godhead to be considered. All other institutions -the nation, the State or the family could be tolerated as long as they served the human spirit and aided its self-manifestation but if their demands smacked of intolerance or inconsistencies, they had to be put aside. The injunctions of old creeds, religious, political, social or culture were valid as long they did not interfere in its freedom. Even Science had to conform to ethics and was relevant as long as it aided human progress. War, cruelty, oppression and exploitation of man by man or by classes or nations were crimes against the religion of humanity and would not be tolerated.

The individual could not be belittled. All efforts were needed to preserve an individual's health, everyone and not a chosen few had the right to healthcare. The life of the human being was not meant to be violated, suppressed or mechanized for the benefit of others. The mind had to be held free and organized and developed to serve humanity. "And all this too is not to be held as an abstract or pious sentiment, but given full and practical recognition in the persons of men and nations and mankind". (Ibid, pg.566) It is this religion of humanity that Tagore adores in his famous poem (originally written in Bengali probably in 1900 and translated by the poet himself in 1911, it appeared as poem 35 in his Nobel Prize winning anthology Gitanjali [Song Offerings] in 1912):

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth:

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Sri Aurobindo views how a humanist trend had been developing since "a century or two" before World War I as a sort of religion of humanity-a movement towards human-centeredness that consolidated the emergence of the individual and reverence for human dignity. (Ibid) It scored a valid point over orthodox religion by being a force of reformation due to its intellectual and critical poise and being an "unsparing assailant" of the ghost of the past while at the same time striving to be an "unflinching champion" of the future. (Ibid) It showed that not a faith on dogmas but a faith on intellectuality can also work miracles.

While both imperialism and orthodox religiosity failed to introduce human values, the emergent religion of humanity, "even without taking bodily shape or a compelling form or a visible means of self-effectuation" was able, in some extent, to humanize a society that was in a great process of transition. (Ibid) "It to some degree humanized society, humanized law and punishment, humanized the outlook of man on man, abolished legal torture and the cruder forms of slavery, raised those who were depressed and fallen, gave large hopes to humanity, stimulated philanthropy and charity and the service of mankind, encouraged everywhere the desire of freedom, put a curb on oppression and greatly minimized its more brutal expressions." (Ibid, pg.566-567)

The religion of humanity also had its influence on war and peace. "It had almost succeeded in humanizing war and would perhaps have succeeded entirely but for the contrary trend of modern Science" (for Science also was instrumental in designing weapons for mass destruction). (Ibid, pg.567) But the religion of humanity had one great achievement. So long, "peace was formerly a rare interlude of constant war". (Ibid) This trend was reversed so that "war became an interlude, if a much too frequent interlude of peace, though as yet only of an armed peace". (Ibid) (How true! Even in the 21st century, countries go on stockpiling arms so that their citizens can peacefully sleep with a purported sense of security!) Thus, at least, the religion of humanity "made it possible for man to conceive of a world free from war as imaginable even without waiting for the Christian millennium". (Ibid)

Humanism spread enlightenment by opening up new standards of education, restored human dignity by working on self-esteem, freeing the serf and untouchable from a continual assault on his self-respect, and "made the labourer in his manhood the potential equal of the rich and powerful". (Ibid) Socialism, the labour movement and economics as a discipline consolidated during this period. What is interesting is that the religion of humanity exerted its influence in multiple spheres of life and yet it had no fixed form or visible system, it was not explicitly ascertainable. Yet Sri Aurobindo asserts that this was its advantage: "But perhaps it was in this that lay its power and advantage, since that saved it from crystallizing into a form and getting petrified or at least losing its more free and subtle action." (Ibid)

However such an intellectual religion of humanity was expected to be more appealing to the clarified minds of the elite and could only have a modified influence on the masses, it would fail to arouse the vox populi to a significant extent if it failed to make itself "more explicit, insistent and categorically imperative". (Ibid) This is why the intellectual religion of humanity has failed to rule over human life, captivate the mass mind and arouse emotional appeal. Sri Aurobindo asserts that until the religion of humanity has a more stable sway over human life, it would be unable to counter its own principal enemy that would shatter all its dreams. "That enemy, the enemy of all real religion, is human egoism, the egoism of the individual, the egoism of class and nation". (Ibid)

Sri Aurobindo adds that an intellectual approach to human unity could for some time curb the explicitly arrogant and brutal expressions of individual and collective egoism, and might bring some sobriety to social institutions but it is doubtful if it could give due space to the love of mankind and real unity between human beings. "For that essentially must be the aim of the religion of humanity, as it must be the earthly aim of all human religion, love, mutual recognition of human brotherhood, a living sense of human oneness and practice of human oneness in thought, feeling and life, the ideal which was expressed first some thousands of years ago in the ancient Vedic hymn and must always remain the highest injunction of the Spirit within us to human life upon earth". (Ibid, pg.568) The great Sanskrit utterance, "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" in the Rig Veda and the Maha Upanishad that proclaims that the world is one family, has still to be worked out in the global consciousness.

Till the oneness of humanity is acknowledged, the religion of humanity can never be accomplished. If it could be done, our mechanical constructs at unification which are anyway fragile could be replaced by a spontaneous development of institutions that would not be foreign to the human psyche. "With that done, the one necessary psychological change will have been effected without which no formal and mechanical, no political and administrative unity can be real and secure. If it is done, that outward unification may not even be indispensable or, if indispensable, it will come about naturally, not, as now it seems likely to be, by catastrophic means, but by the demand of the human mind, and will be held secure by an essential need of our perfected and developed human nature". (Ibid)

The religion of humanity remains an intellectual and sentimental ideal but fails to be a rabble rouser and thus has been unable to captivate the psyche of the masses. The intellectual idea might be theoretically strong, may appeal to the emotion and sentiment and yet fall short of influencing the core of the being. Sri Aurobindo explains that the intellect and sentiments are instruments of the being that can serve high ideals or ride on sheer populism; they may be "servants of the ego or channels of the soul". (Ibid) As the masses are still moved by populist maneuverings rather than idealistic notions, great ideals that can effectuate radical social changes still remain chimerical.

What Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1918 seems to be still relevant after a century: "The aim of the religion of humanity was formulated in the eighteenth century by a sort of primal intuition; that aim was and it is still to re-create human society in the image of three kindred ideas, liberty, equality and fraternity. None of these has really been won in spite of all the progress that has been achieved. The liberty that has been so loudly proclaimed as an essential of modern progress is an outward, mechanical and unreal liberty. The equality that has been so much sought after and battled for is equally an outward and mechanical and will turn out to be an unreal equality. Fraternity is not even claimed to be a practicable principle of the ordering of life and what is put forward as its substitute is the outward and mechanical principle of equal association or at the best a comradeship of labour." (Ibid, pg.568-569)

Sri Aurobindo explains that such a devaluation of ideals happened as in an age where intellect disregards the soul, the ideal of humanity has to cater to the emotional, sensational and utilitarian life rather than the essence of the being. Yet even in the externalities of life, the religion of humanity has brought some parity, some semblance of mutuality and conglomeration of common interests. It has worked upon political and social institutions, at times revolutionizing them so as to make them more accountable in public space. "It has laboured to establish a political, social and legal liberty, equality and mutual help in an equal association". (Ibid, pg.569) Its work however has been limited to the machinery of life and outer mind rather than upon the soul of the race.

Though highly idealistic, the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood have not been consolidated in the human psyche, individual and collective. A society that gives leverage to freedom find it difficult to maintain an equitable distribution of both human and economic resources. A society that gives more importance to equality can become artificial and mechanical. A society that wants to promote fraternity or brotherhood as a social comradeship can at best promote an association for achieving common egoistic goals. As Sri Aurobindo quipped with a prophetic overlay, "If communism ever reestablishes itself successfully upon earth, it must be on a foundation of soul's brotherhood and the death of egoism. A forced association and a mechanical comradeship would end in a worldwide fiasco". (CWSA 12, pg.465) A brotherhood based on physical kinship, vital association or intellectual agreement always remain tied to the ego and its ramifications.

This brings to the phenomenon of egoism which has both its individual and collective perspectives. It is egoism that plays spoilsport. Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are "three godheads of the soul" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.569), form "the triple gospel of the idea of humanity" (Ibid, pg.570) and cannot be achieved mechanically as we live in the individual and communal ego. "When the ego claims liberty, it arrives at competitive individualism. When it asserts equality, it arrives first at strife, then at an attempt to ignore the variations of Nature, and, as the sole way of doing that successfully, it constructs an artificial and machine-made society. ..For the ego to speak of fraternity is for it to speak of something contrary to its nature".(Ibid, pg.569)

The harmony

The real clue to the harmony between Liberty and Equality is to establish the principle of Fraternity in the psyche - in the soul-consciousness. A real fraternity can only be achieved through soul-kinship which then provides the foundation where Liberty and Equality can be harmonized. This is because unless humanity bases its harmony on soul-kinship, it would remain tied to the ego and its skewed machinations. One has to shift the lever of action from the ego to the soul.

"When the soul claims freedom, it is the freedom of its self-development, the self-development of the divine in man in all his being. When it claims equality, what it is claiming is that freedom equally for all and the recognition of the same soul, the same godhead in all human beings. When it strives for brotherhood, it is founding that equal freedom of self-development on a common aim, a common life, a unity of mind and feeling founded upon the recognition of this inner spiritual unity. These three things are in fact the nature of the soul; for freedom, equality, unity are the eternal attributes of the Spirit. It is the practical recognition of this truth, it is the awakening of the soul in man and the attempt to get him to live from his soul and not from his ego which is the inner meaning of religion, and it is that to which the religion of humanity also must arrive before it can fulfil itself in the life of the race". (Ibid, pg.570)


Date of Update: 26-Apr-24

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu