Reading of Preface
The Ideal of Human Unity was written in the background of world events between 1915 and 1918 to highlight the deeper causes of human unity. The concept of unity had usually been interpreted along the rather oversimplified notions of uniformity and mechanical association. Sri Aurobindo probed into the depths of both individual and collective consciousness to understand the roots of human unity.
We ordinarily think that even a loose transcultural human unity can be achieved on the basis of one or several world-views viz.
- A rational scientific outlook
- Political Will
- A common DNA
- Geographical uniqueness
- Historical necessity
- Social equality
- Economic parity
- Secularism and religious tolerance
- Ecological concerns
However, we find that none of these approaches singly or in combination can foster a human unity that can persevere through the vicissitudes of time. Sri Aurobindo therefore plunged into the depths of human life, individual and collective, to construct a consciousness paradigm of human unity.
His book "The ideal of Human Unity" covers world-events between 1915 and 1918 but here we are concerned to understand the seed-ideas that are yet relevant. We will attempt to read the implications of his ideas in contemporary parlance and nomenclature as some old concepts still masquerade under the garb of modernism. Thus the disappearance of the "empire-idea" has not obliterated the viewing of certain developed nations as "imperialistic" in outlook by developing and under-developed nations. One cannot also rule out the possibility of a resurgence of the empire-idea in a new form in consonance with the contemporary mind-set.
What he wrote in 1919 about the two initial great difficulties for even a "loose world-union" is still relevant as centrifugal forces that can disrupt the modern spirit of internationalism if interpreted in contemporary terms:
(a)The vertical hierarchy of developed nations, who sport power, influence and money and are expected to act with greater responsibilities for the globe vis-a vis the swarm of developing and under-developed nations need to also operate in a horizontally functioning spectrum of mutual respect where each nation is unique in qualitative terms -- an endeavor that is difficult to achieve. In 1919, Sri Aurobindo warned that a failure to bring into one system all the nations and states would result in a "strife of the old oligarchic and democratic tendencies in a new form, a question between control of the world-system by the will and influence of a few powerful imperial States and the free and equal control by all, small nations and great, European and American and Asiatic peoples". (1)
(b)The struggle between exploitative Capitalism and marginalized Labour has not been solved but gets expressed in new forms and continue to strike a discordant note in the era of globalization. While the conflict got initially eulogized in the tussle between Communist and Capitalist societies, the focus today ironically does not exclude concerns for labour in communistic or extreme socialistic regimes. What is more interesting is that the conflict between Capital and Labour has become multidimensional. It started with economic disparity, moved into the area of broader human rights and is presently intertwined with ecological disparity. The much hyped World Ecological Summit at Copenhagen, 2009 failed for many reasons of which one was the new unresolved ecological dimension of Labour-Capital conflict.*
However, Sri Aurobindo hoped, even in 1919, that the Labour-Capital conflict may actually accelerate a new level of unification. Indeed, without a resolution of the Labour-Capital conflict, a radical International unity is not possible.
In his 1919 preface, Sri Aurobindo delineated the main issues that have to be taken into cognizance for constructing the Ideal of Human Unity, issues that are equally relevant today:
- Natural forces in life always tend to create larger and larger human aggregates
- The principles for the creation of aggregates have to be dynamically chosen (in accordance to the Time-Spirit)
- The unity-principle must harmonize individual and group freedom not merely as a compromise but in a fulfilling and vibrant manner
- A religion of humanity has to evolve so that the ideal of human unity is inherently implicit in the psyche of the human race.
Sri Aurobindo points out that even a formal unity is insufficient without "a growth of the religion of humanity which can alone make it a great psychological advance in the spiritual evolution of the race". (2)
The Covid 19 pandemic that caused a global devastation in 2020-2021 brought the whole world-order to a war-footing with unprecedented transnational co-operation in combating the crisis, signalling a new integer in human unity. However the doubt that the external reason could be an accidental leak from a Chinese laboratory may again cause differences in perception motivated by economic and military issues.
*[In a sarcastic and yet realistic tweet on 3 July,2021, Greta Thunberg, one of the main initiators for the great environmental activism of Friday for Change commented that at present people in power were calling themselves "climate leaders" while at the same time busy in granting new oil licenses!]
1. CWSA 25, pg.274
Readings in Chapter I
The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers
The title of the first chapter itself makes interesting reading .He is focusing here not on "unity" per se but on the movement in nature towards unity. Any movement in nature has its utility and dangers. The movement of clouds coalescing with each other is necessary for a bountiful harvest but can also be dangerous if it causes a flood or a deluge. Likewise, the movement towards unity of a collectivity can bring a universalized prosperity that a single individual cannot achieve. But a regimented, uniform unity can crush an individual's dream for growth and progress.
It is a fact that Nature always strives for unity. It is also a fact that this unity comes with a price. (It is the urge for unity that led to gender-based reproduction that in turn led to the emergence of more and more complex forms in evolution. But this also led to the phenomenon of death. The unicellular organism does not die but gets replicated ad infinitum!)
The term "unity" appears to be a chimera in human life. The mind might prefer a particular idea but the heart might not consent to have it effectuated .Even if the mind and heart are in consonance, the body might rebel and upset all moves! It is so difficult to harmonize and unify the discordant parts of an individual personality. Naturally it is far more difficult to unify and harmonize a collectivity comprising of myriad individuals. Sri Aurobindo concedes: "Nothing is more obscure to humanity or less seized by its understanding, whether in the power that moves it or the sense of the aim towards which it moves, than its own communal and collective life". (1)
Nature gives us another interesting example. Many elements in nature unite in different permutations and combinations to form more and more complex organisms. If a microalga is formed by the unity of a certain number of natural principles, a big tree is formed by a much greater unity of natural principles. A cyclone cannot destroy a microalga. A big tree can either be usurped in a storm or fall under the pressure of its own weight if it has started to decay or wear out. And if a mass of trees in a forest catch fire or get uprooted, what havoc is created!
The collapse of huge aggregates
The same story is repeated in great human collectivities .Many countries, nations and kingdoms unite to form huge aggregates which can collapse under their own weight if they start decaying from within. This is what happened to the Roman Empire. Sri Aurobindo wrote: "The Roman Empire is the historic example of an organization of unity which transcended the limits of the nation, and its advantages and disadvantages are there perfectly typified. The advantages are admirable organization, peace, wide-spread security, order and material well-being; the disadvantage is that the individual, the city, the region sacrifice their independent life and become mechanical parts of a machine; life loses its colour, richness, variety, freedom and victorious impulse towards creation. The organization is great and admirable, but the individual dwindles and is overpowered and overshadowed; and eventually by the smallness and feebleness of the individual the huge organism inevitably and slowly loses even its great conservative vitality and dies of an increasing stagnation. Even while outwardly whole and untouched, the structure has become rotten and begins to crack and dissolve at the first shock from outside. Such organizations, such periods are immensely useful for conservation, even as the Roman Empire served to consolidate the gains of the rich centuries that preceded it. But they arrest life and growth". (2) One is reminded of the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Republic.
Huge vis-a-vis smaller aggregates
Sri Aurobindo makes a very important psychological observation: huge aggregates or collectivities, even if strictly organized and united do not necessarily support a rich and puissant and fulfilling human life. Rather, it seems that "collective life is more at ease with itself, more genial, varied, and fruitful when it can concentrate itself in small spaces and simpler organisms."(3) He draws instances from the past, both in Europe and in India to illustrate that collective life was most powerful and vibrant when organised in little independent centres acting intimately upon each other but not fused into a single unity ,viz. (4):
|1. The religious life of tribes that formed the little nation of Jews.
||1. Small kingdoms of ancient period
|2. The many-sided life of small
||2. Larger but still small nations, kingdoms
Pallavas, Chalukyas, Pandyas, Cholas, Cheras
|3. Artistic/intellectual life of Medieval Italy.
||3. Greater Empires--
Maurya, Gupta & Mogul empires who gave little other than political & administrative organization
Sri Aurobindo makes two interesting observation in this huge vis-a-vis smaller aggregates context.
(a) Even in the huge aggregates which have been organized efficiently, the throb of life, the elan-vital, the quintessence of culture and power have been actually preserved by some sort of artificial concentration of vitality into some localized centre, classically urban, like London, Paris and Rome at the cost of deprivation of the vast spaces occupied by the non-urban proletariat. "By this device Nature, while acquiring the benefits of a larger organization and more perfect unity, preserves to some extent that equally precious power of fruitful concentration in a small space and into a closely packed activity which she had possessed in her more primitive system of the city state or petty kingdom. But this advantage was purchased by the condemnation of the rest of the organization, the district, the provincial town, the village to a dull, petty and somnolent life in strange contrast with the vital intensity of the urbs or metropolis" (5)
(b) When the small city-states and regional cultures had to eventually merge to form nations, kingdoms and empires, the "groupments of smaller nations" had more sustainable vitality than huge States and colossal empires. "Collective life diffusing itself in too vast spaces seems to lose intensity and productiveness. Europe has lived in England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the small States of Germany - all her later civilization and progress evolved itself there, not in the huge mass of the Holy Roman or the Russian Empire". (6)
Asia versus Europe
Sri Aurobindo's comparison of Europe and Asia in the beginning of 20th century vindicated his concept of the diffusion of sustainable vitality in huge aggregates of human beings. Asia had great masses of people but was increasingly backward, isolated and stagnated not only in strength and financial resources but in social stratification, political experimentation and cultural creativity. In contrast, European nations were "acting richly upon each other, rapidly progressing by quick creative steps and sometimes by bounds" (7)
The Collapse of smaller aggregates
Nature inevitably presses the smaller wholes to coalesce into bigger wholes. She makes the smaller aggregates defective so that she can push forward her evolutionary movement towards larger and more complex organizations. The most important defect of the smaller aggregates is the incapacity to stand against foreign invasion by larger organizations (a reason why world bodies like the United Nations are so necessary to safeguard the security of smaller countries). The other defect is the incapacity for wide-spread material well-being (This is why today we feel the necessity of globalization in economy).In short, the smaller aggregates were marked by impermanence (8) and had to follow Nature's movement of uniting with other aggregates and coalescing to form larger wholes.
The issue of Unity
The main issue in human collectivity is not the conflict between smaller and larger aggregates but Nature's pressing scheme of unity of mankind. It has to be achieved in the road map of human evolution. It is a divine decree that has to be worked out. Sri Aurobindo undertakes that journey. He begins by examining the natural turn towards unity of human aggregates. He is worried as a mere social, political and administrative unification of mankind can crush the essence of individual freedom and Regional self-determination. He also finds that subjects like Sociology and History can give us only kaleidoscopic views instead of unmasking the hidden forces behind the march of civilization. (9) How true! The term "ethnic cleansing" came to be used not during the World Wars but during the mul ti-ethnic conflict in the Balkan countries at the end of the 20th century!
In subsequent chapters of "The Ideal of Human Unity", Sri Aurobindo constructs a unity paradigm that would harmonize individual and group freedom within a globalized gestalt and could thus "keep the race intact in the roots of its vitality, richly diverse in its oneness" (10)
1. CWSA 25, pg.279
2. Ibid, pg.283
3. Ibid, pg.281
4. Ibid, pg.281-282
5. Ibid, pg.283
6. Ibid, pg.282
8. Ibid, pg.282
9. Ibid, pg.279
10. Ibid, pg.284
Readings in Chapter II
The Imperfection of Past Aggregates
The title of the 2nd chapter is "The Imperfection of the Past Aggregates". As Sri Aurobindo has used the term "past", he must have conceived a present that is transitional and a future that is yet unaccomplished. Indeed, he has conceived a futuristic vision of "the largest possible human aggregate, the whole of a united humanity".(1)
An aggregate of human beings cannot suddenly manifest an ideal state of world-union. Like all individual forms and species in the creation that evolve, human groupings and conglomerations have also to grow and develop into a final universality. This is natural as there is a difference between
(a) The psychological development of an individual through the limitations of emotion and cognition,
(b)the evolutionary development of the species through the limitations of space and constraints of time, and
(c)the social development of human aggregates through the limitations of group dynamics and organizational behavior.
Due to these inherent and multiple limitations, the hierarchy of human aggregates had to slowly and progressively enlarge starting from the smaller groupments of family, commune, clan, tribe, class, city-state, congeries of tribes, and thence moving to the larger groupments of kingdoms, empires, nations and is now progressing towards even larger regional and international groupings not based merely on expansion of power but in consonance with the spirit of universalism.
However, the development and progress of human aggregates is extremely complex .Sri Aurobindo enumerates two main problems:
1. In the progressive expanding hierarchy of human aggregates, the smaller and initial aggregates are not entirely destroyed for the sake of larger and later aggregates. Sometimes they are integrated with the larger aggregates, sometimes they remain in a modified form in accordance with the Time-Spirit. As a result, the hierarchy of human aggregates becomes progressively pluridimensional in nature. In fact, Nature "seldom destroys entirely the types she once made or only destroys that for which there is no longer any utility; the rest she keeps in order to serve her need or her passion for variety, richness, multiformity and only effaces the dividing lines or modifies the characteristics and relations sufficiently to allow of the larger unity she is creating". (2)
2. The formation of progressively larger aggregates makes another basic conflict more and more complex-the conflict between the individual and the collectivity or social aggregate. The harmony between the individual and the collectivity has not yet been perfected in civilization. A larger and more complex aggregate does not automatically guarantee freedom of the individual at all levels of life. "The perfect society will be that which most entirely favours the perfection of the individual; the perfection of the individual will be incomplete if it does not help towards the perfect state of the social aggregate to which he belongs.."(3)
Conflict between social aggregates
As a result of these problems, the march of civilization has not been able to surpass the conflicts between all types of aggregates .Sri Aurobindo cites classic examples of failures and successes in history (4):
(1)The conflict among Semitic tribes still persists in the Arab-Israel struggle and has become a permanent source of weakness in that part of the world.
(2)The failure to integrate clan-life in Celtic races resulted in a phase of domination by foreign rule in Ireland and Scotland with the last-minute exception in Wales.
(3)The city states and small regional groups failed to fuse in Greece but singularly succeeded in Roman Italy.
(4) For two thousand years, the centrifugal tendencies of myriad aggregates ranging from family, commune, caste, clan, religion, sub-regional groupings, linguistic units, sub-nationalities failed to integrate in the Indian sub-continent till "Nature had to resort to her usual dues ex machina denouement, the instrumentality of a foreign rule".(5)
Conflict within social aggregates
It is not enough to resolve conflicts between social aggregates. It is equally important to deal with a psycho-social conflict of a different nature that arises within sufficiently organised social aggregates. The individuals comprising an aggregate do not progress at par with each other -- there are enormous individual differences. "Some advance, others remain stationary,--absolutely or relatively,-others fall back. Consequently, the emergence of a dominant class is inevitable within the aggregate itself, just as in the constant clash between the aggregates the emergence of dominant nations is inevitable". (6)
What happens when a dominant class of individuals emerges in a society?
Sri Aurobindo explains that the Time-Spirit decides which class is needed for progress or retrogression. Thus,
(a)If power and strength of character is needed, a dominant aristocracy emerges;
(b)If knowledge and science are needed, a dominant literary or savant class emerges;
(c) If practical ability ingenuity, economy and efficient organization is needed, a dominant bourgeoisie or Vaishya class emerges, usually capped with legal acumen; and
(d)If a close organization of toil and a diffusion of general well-being is attempted, an artisan class may emerge. (7)
Fate of dominance
Sri Aurobindo emphatically adds that any domination of one class by another or one nation by another cannot be historically sustainable for "the final aim of Nature in human life cannot be the exploitation of the many by the few or even of the few by the many, can never be the perfection of some at the cost of the abject submergence and ignorant subjection of the bulk of humanity; these can only be transient devices". (8)
How does a dominant class disappear?
The phenomenon of dominance carries within it the seeds of destruction which can manifest in two ways:
(a)ejection or destruction of the exploiting element ,or by
(b) fusion and equalization of classes.
By the beginning of 20th century, the dominant intellectual and warrior classes in Europe were already on the point of subsidence into equality with the general mass. What was left was the rigid conflict between the dominant propertied class and the laborer whose resolution had become the mandate of the hour. Sri Aurobindo held the socialist trend towards EQUALITY in Europe as a great law of Nature's progression. He added, "Absolute equality is surely neither intended nor possible, just as absolute uniformity is both impossible and utterly undesirable; but a fundamental equality which will render the play of true superiority and difference inoffensive, is essential to any conceivable perfectibility of the human race".(9)
Sri Aurobindo was always particular to point out that uniformity was not synonymous with unity. He favored a unity that took into cognizance the truth of multiplicity - a reason why he used the term multiple unity in the Life Divine. That is why he views that absolute uniformity is impossible and undesirable. In the same vein, he explains that absolute equality is impractical in the manifestation and hence we should strive towards fundamental equality. Beyond manifestation, beyond creation, in some featureless Nihil or Zero we can conceive of such concepts as absolute uniformity or absolute equality. In the manifestation, variation is needed for richness and expression of infinite possibilities and hence, ideals have to be placed in the context of relativities. A fundamental equality might not make everybody a Bill Gates or a vagabond but can at least ensure basic human rights in a universalized manner!
Should a dominant class voluntarily abdicate its dominance?
Sri Aurobindo is emphatic that this is exactly what a dominant minority should undertake at the correct time so as to avoid disastrous consequences and disordered progress. (10) He regrets that a failure to do so in India by the Brahmins and other privileged classes has been a main cause of eventual decline and degeneracy. "Therefore, the perfect counsel for a dominant minority is always to recognize in good time the right hour for its abdication and for the imparting of its ideals, qualities, culture, experience to the rest of the aggregate or to as much of it as is prepared for that progress". (11).
It is interesting that Sri Aurobindo used the term disordered progress. But that is the correct term in the Indian context after the age old discrimination based on caste prejudices distorted the social fabric. Even after all attempts to uplift the lower classes have been taken since 1947 in the form of reservations and concessions, the social conflicts go on acquiring new forms of expression.
The Individual versus the collectivity
Sri Aurobindo views the conflict of the individual with the social aggregate to be a very basic and fundamental conflict that cannot be over simplistically solved through social, administrative and cultural machinery. He views this issue from a meta-psychological perspective and explains that while a collectivity exists only because of the individual units comprising it, the individual can exceptionally exist by exceeding the limits of any aggregate or collectivity. He can always exceed himself and all his associations, his family, clan, class or nation. It is not enough for him to be self-sufficient in a group. He also has the urge to exceed his social group to universalize himself and in the process to be part of perhaps a yet wider global group. "Therefore, just as the systems of social aggregation which depend on the domination of a class or classes over others must change or dissolve, so the social aggregates which stand in the way of this perfection of the individual and seek to coerce him within their limited mould and into the rigidity of a narrow culture or petty class or national interest, must find their term and their day of change or destruction under the irresistible impulsion of progressing Nature". (12)
1. CWSA 25, pg.285
2. Ibid, pg.285-286
3. Ibid, pg.285
4. Ibid, pg.286
6. Ibid, pg.287
9. Ibid, pg.288
12. Ibid, pg.289
Date of Update: 26-Jul-21
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu