Readings in Chapter III
The Group and the Individual
In Chapter III, Sri Aurobindo raises one of the most important issues in human unity: "the strife between two equally deep-rooted human tendencies, individualism and collectivism". (1)
In the history of Time, the term collectivity goes on changing its denouement. "It was the family, the tribe or the city, the polis; it became the clan, the caste and the class, the kula, the gens. It is now the nation. Tomorrow or the day after it may be all mankind."(2)But whatever be the nature of the collectivity, the conflict between the group and the individual has not yet been resolved in the psyche of the human race.
An introspection of the collapse of the erstwhile U.S.S.R suggests that the brilliant Marxist analysis of the social, economic and political conflict between classes was not matched by an equally brilliant analysis of the psychological and spiritual conflict between the individual and the collectivity. Indeed, disciplines like sociology, anthropology, economics and political science deal with the dynamics of the collectivity. In the process, the individual is relegated to a general common denominator minus its uniqueness. In contrast, the discipline of psychology restores uniqueness as the outstanding attribute of the human being. Spirituality goes a step further. It expands the repertoire of consciousness so that from the flux of potentialities and probabilities that characterize the human mould, there is the increasing emergence of the Godhead -- the luminous Person. That does not mean that the growth of the individual annuls the collectivity. It is said that when Lord Gautama Buddha stood at the threshold of Nirvana, his soul turned back and vowed not to cross over so long there was a single earthly creature bound in the chain of suffering and the knot of the ego. In fact, from the perspective of spirituality and consciousness, the enlightened, self-liberating individual and the engrossing collectivity are equally valid poises of the same Reality.
Sri Aurobindo explains that Nature constantly experiments to balance the authority of the State with the freedom of the individual and in the process, "she sometimes seems to lean entirely on one side, sometimes entirely to the other, at others to correct both excesses by a more or less successful temporary adjustment and moderating compromise". (3) Thus ancient Sparta and Bismarck's Germany (and later Hitler's totalitarian state) asserted the State idea at the expense of the individual. No wonder, the German historical school of economics that developed in the late 19th century as a reaction against the deductively reasoned laws of classical economics, viewed governmental intervention in the economy as a positive and necessary force. In contrast, ancient Athens and the contemporary French republic are examples where despite asserting the supremacy of the State, a measured freedom, power and dignity were allotted to the individual to the extent that state control would not be compromised. (4) After all, the French revolution in 1789 proclaimed the rights of the individual and destroyed monarchical absolutism .Nature conducted a third experiment which was bolder where the State abdicated as much as possible to the individual, emphatically declared that it existed for the growth of the citizen, assured freedom and dignity to individual citizens asserting that individual growth and perfection at its best guaranteed the wellbeing, strength and expansion of the State. For some time in the early years of 20th century, England represented this trend till overpowered by its insular egoism, defects of the race and the exaggerated assertion of limited ideas. (5)
Sri Aurobindo also points out that the absolutist trend of State control persists regardless of the nature of the State .Actually it is human nature that persists in its tyranny, either through the institution of a single monarch over all or through a majority represented in the cabinet or politburo, assembly or parliament over the masses-a paradox which represents the phenomenon of "a hypnotized oppression and repression of the majority by itself". (6)
Nevertheless, the State idea has its appeal to the contemporary psyche, and is in wavelength with the awakening of the masses and the palpable strength of the proletariat. The State idea "demands that individual egoism shall immolate itself to a collective interest; it claims that man shall not live for himself but for the whole, the group, the community .It asserts that the hope of the good and progress of humanity lies in the efficiency and organization of the State. Its way to perfection lies through the ordering by the State of all the economic and vital arrangements of the individual and the group, the "mobilization" ....of the intellect, capacity, thought, emotion, life of the individual, of all that he is and has, by the State in the interest of all .Pushed to its ultimate conclusion, this means the socialistic ideal in full force ..." (7)
Motivation for the State-Idea
Yet, Sri Aurobindo explains that the State-idea is sustained by two motives that represent a "fatal mixture of truth and falsehood":
(a)It appeals to the external interest of the race, and
(b)It satisfies the highest moral standards (8).
Why does he say so?
(a) A mere catering to the external interest of the race cannot usher fulfillment in life that is the aspiration of all human traditions. In fact, when the external needs are taken care of, then the question of meta-needs arises. It is upon this premise that Maslow became famous for his hypothesis of the hierarchy of needs. This quest for meta-needs requires a more and more individualized space with the growth in consciousness which can clash with the norms and sanctions of the collectivity. That is why we often see how the State imposes sanctions against creativity just to placate the ego of a ruling group (witness Solzhenitsyn's plight for The Gulag Archipelago) or to assuage the sentiments of a belief-system (witness the banishment of Bahaullah by the Ottoman government for propagating the unity of all religions and universal human brotherhood).Even without going to such extremities, one can cite numerous examples of State highhandedness that are cleverly conceited behind the public eye. One glaring example is the advocating of the outdated Freudian psychoanalysis as the official psychotherapeutic lingua franca in France. This is ironical as France is the cradle of creativity, innovation and new ideas. The State can become more ferocious when its authority is challenged by merely the urge for freedom. The world has witnessed how as late as 1989, students who were just exerting their right for freedom and otherwise had neither intention nor strength to usurp the power of the State were ruthlessly gunned down in Tiananmen Square. The State is allergic to the simple word "freedom".
(b) The State's conforming to the highest moral standards has limited value as morality is not the last word of human nature. Moreover, in the case of moral dilemmas that arise in spheres like euthanasia, capital punishment, organ transplant, suicide, the State cannot summarily solve problems based on legal strictures and constitutional amendments. One of Sri Aurobindo's unique contributions to the world of Thought is that ethical values are transitional and there is a constant transvaluation that moves from the infra-ethical, traverses the ethical range and when that is exhausted, needs to move to supra-ethical poise. There are difficult situations where contentious dilemmas can only be resolved from the supra-ethical poise. To achieve that capability, the individual has to develop his or her repertoire of consciousness and harness new supra-cognitive faculties. At the present state of organization of human collectivities, it is difficult for the State to accommodate such endeavors which are individualized and yet to be optimally universalized. The tragedy would be that in its zeal for uniformity, such creative endeavors may be crushed by the State even before blossoming.
(c) There is another reason why even if the State satisfies the external needs of its citizens and maintains high moral standards can still espouse falsehood. This is because in executing these functions, the State may enrich itself at the cost of depriving other not-so-enriched States and in the process jeopardize the effort towards global human unity. This trend was once visible when European countries exploited their erstwhile colonies. Today the colonies have become independent but the exploitation continues in the garb of globalization, market economy and ecological disparities .It is imperative that one particular State cannot excel at the cost of others. In the grand orchestra of human unity, ways and means have to be worked out for the upliftment of the entire mankind. In subsequent chapters of The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo charts out a trajectory towards this end.
The synthesis of individualism and collectivism
The experiential realization in spirituality that the individual and the group are different and equally important poises of the same Reality is difficult to replicate at the material, mundane field of practical life. Why? At the material level, both the individual ego and the group ego have to consolidate their respective positions through self-preservation as well as self-assertion. Self-preservation proceeds from the bare optimal necessity of survival and when that has been assured gives way to a heightened need for aggrandizement and domination through self-assertion. In earthly creation, each element has to grow to its maximum potential before it can harmonize with its opposite element.
The mystical perspective
The grammar of harmonization has an important significance in the Indian tradition. True harmonization of two apparently irreconcilable elements does not occur through mutual adjustment, compromise or concord but through mutual devouring. "In effect, the swallowing up, not of one by the other but of each by the other, so that both shall live entirely in the other and as the other, is our highest ideal of oneness. It is the last ideal of love at which strife tries ignorantly to arrive; for by strife one can only arrive at an adjustment of the two opposite demands, not at a stable harmony, a compromise between two conflicting egoisms and not the fusing of them into each other". (9)
Sri Aurobindo could write this as the classical Indian devotional trend enshrined in the Vaishnavite tradition eulogized the complete identification of Lord Krishna with Radha, his divine paramour. Sri Krishna wished to identify totally with Radha's intense devotion. After exhausting all possibilities, the last option left to Lord Krishna was to enter into the very heart of Radha, to identify completely with Radha's consciousness, albeit, to become Radha in oneness (10). Sri Aurobindo describes that mystic union through poetic excellence:
"Two in One, Two who know difference rich in sense,
Two to clasp, One to be, this His strange mystery". (11)
FROM MYSTICISM TO MATERIALISM
The problem is how to effectuate this lofty metaphysical thought invested with the most intense mystic rapture in the mundane, materialistic matrix of individualism and collectivism. Sri Aurobindo proceeds to accomplish this endeavor with two innovative constructs:
(a) His concept of the evolution of consciousness, and
(b) His premise that if group life started with an animal and barbarian anarchy marked by free spontaneity, it can culminate into a higher, intuitive and divine anarchy.
The evolutionary perspective
Evolution starts with Matter as the base and foundation and in this matrix, the Life-principle and Mind-principle successively manifest. However, the world of Matter has to have uniformity so that universal laws of the physical and biological sciences can build a world that is consistent and durable, subject to logically definable guidelines. If this were not so, we could not have made the correct astronomical calculations that allow a spaceship to travel to a planet. Sri Aurobindo explains that material life is characterized "not so much in progress as in persistence, not so much in individual self-enlargement as in self-repetition....since individual form is impermanent and only the idea of a form is permanent in the consciousness that creates the universe, -- for there it does not perish...constant reproduction is the only possible material immortality.Self-preservation,self-repetition,self-multiplication are necessarily, then, the predominant instincts of all material existence"(12). The end-result is that "UNIFORMITY" in material life manifests in the gregarious nature of human groups since the beginning of our race. Association became imperative to the survival of the human species
(Thank God this happened so that sociology and anthropology could emerge as distinct disciplines robbing psychology of its monopoly on human behaviour!). Sri Aurobindo explains that uniformity in human groupings brought safety, security, growth, efficiency, self-assertion, self-preservation-attributes that still go to constitute "the dominant idea of all collectivism"(13).Indeed, till today, the votaries of the State idea and the champions of socialism and communism are sustained by these basic tenets of collectivism.
The uniformity and stability in Matter is disrupted once it is impregnated by the Life-principle and the Mind-principle. The Life-principle introduces change in the form of a robust vitality, brings in an efflorescence of variety, the throb of excitement, the thrill of adventure. Even the mere atavistic urge for procreation is elevated to the level of romance and passion relegating the physical act to a secondary position. The mind-principle brings a change in the form of self-enlargement and self-improvement, a continual shift to an increasingly complex perfection. What does this mean in social and anthropological terms? Human groups become more and more complex as they have to deal more and more with the freedom and variation of the individual that clash with the group-norms. Sri Aurobindo writes, "Looking more into fundamental things we perceive that in Matter uniformity is the sign of a group; free variation and individual development progress with the growth of Life and Mind. If then we suppose man to be an evolution of mental being in Matter and out of Matter, we must assume that he begins with uniformity and subservience of the individual and proceeds towards variety and freedom of the individual"(14).Thus is phenomenally born the great conflict between individualism and collectivism.
At an ordinary level, humanity continually works through this conflict. Suppose there is a community which for generations has produced farmers. If a youngster from this background gets an exceptional education and becomes a space-scientist, is his uniqueness rejected by his immediate social group marked by uniformity in thought and involvement? In all probability, he makes his community proud and inspires others in the community to exceed their limitations. At the same time his regard and commitment to his social group of origin might be appropriate. If a family can integrate a member who has excelled others in the same group why should not we suppose that a greater harmonization between individualism and collectivism is feasible and possible?
There is an important psychological insight in the consciousness perspective of Sri Aurobindo's Thought. In His view, the individual subconscious sinks into the inconscience which in turn merges with the inconscience of the collectivity. This means that the individual progress can get stalled after an optimal point and may have to wait to progress further till the consciousness of the collectivity is raised a bit. And this is a process that gets continually repeated pari passu with the progress of the individual. Thus it is a divine decree that the individual cannot progress in isolation beyond an optimal point, the collectivity has to follow suit. Nature herself imposes the necessity of integration of the Individual and the Group.
There is no point in losing faith over Universal Nature. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo explains that Nature always harmonizes apparently irreconcilable principles. The inertia and lackluster properties of physical Matter stands in stark contrast with the robust vitality and buoyancy of Life-energy but Nature successfully harmonized them to change the quality of inanimate matter in animate life. Likewise, the rudimentary brain in non-human animal-life stands in sharp contrast to the highly complex human mind but Nature successfully harmonized the two. The central nervous system got increasingly perfected through the biological spiral of evolution till it could support the efflorescence of the world of ideas in the human mind. Sri Aurobindo further explains that the human being is a transitional form and with the evolution of consciousness, there is a possibility of higher models of human beings to emerge. In this evolutionary perspective, the harmonization of individualism and collectivism should naturally and spontaneously follow paving the way for the emergence of higher-order Gnostic societies.
The higher anarchy
Was the early human being an isolated animal, a beast of prey, before he became an animal of the pack? What was the nature of that free and unsocial state that preceded the social state? Sri Aurobindo reminds that traditions always described a golden age where the human being was freely social without society. He adds, "Not bound by laws or institutions but living by natural instinct or free knowledge, he held the right law of his living in himself and needed neither to prey on his fellows nor to be restrained by the iron yoke of the collectivity". (15) Elsewhere, he gives intuitive glimpses of that age, "Visions of waters blue in an immortal sunlight or grey in the drifting of a magic welter of cloud & rain, rocks swept by the surf and whistling in their hollows with the wind, island meadows & glades many pictured above the sea, rivers and haze-purpled hills, a scene of unimaginable beauty where forms moved that had not lost the pristine beauty of man before the clutch stiffened on him of early decay & death, of grief and old age, where hearts beat that had not lost the pulsations of our ancient immortality and were not yet attuned to the broken rhythms of pain & grief.." (16)
In the march of civilization that initial golden age was lost. We lost our innate simplicity as we became more and more complex in time. The development of the individual strengthened the ego-poise and free variation in human nature allowed consolidation of differences between individuals as well as widening of the gulf between the individual and the collectivity. The forced government of man by man coerced a superficial facade of unity through kings, parliaments, laws, policing, punishments, oppression, repression, selfishness and corruption. This venture has continued to make the harmony between individualism and collectivism increasingly difficult to achieve.
Sri Aurobindo reminds that there is also "the high dream of philosophic Anarchism, associated by the inner law of love and light and right being, right thinking, right action .....It is even possible that our original state was an instinctive animal spontaneity of free and fluid association and that our final ideal state will be an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity of free and fluid association". (17)
How can the bridge between "INSTINCT" and "INTUITION" be built? In Sri Aurobindo's scheme of things, this necessitates an evolutionary growth in consciousness resulting in the emergence of higher species of human beings who will be more spontaneously able to use supra-rational faculties like intuition. Only then it would be possible to manifest higher-order Gnostic societies where the individual and the group are perfectly harmonized.
Sri Aurobindo's aspiration may sound utopian but actually the seeds of what he termed as ANARCHY have already been sown in the social psyche. The word anarchy was loosely used till popularized as a valid political construct by Proudhon (1840) and Bakunin (1872).Though suppressed by Fascism in the 1930s, anarchism re-emerged in 1950s and 1960s by influencing the civil rights movement and students movements in the West. In fact the contemporary radical ecology movement that was initiated in the 1970s was very much inspired by anarchism. There is every reason to be optimistic that an uplifted and higher anarchism based on the freedom of soul-poise can really be operative one day.
Sri Aurobindo reminds, "Our destiny may be the conversion of an original animal association into a community of the gods. Our progress may be a devious round leading from the easy and spontaneous uniformity and harmony which reflects Nature to the self-possessed unity which reflects the Divine" (18Ibid)
1. CWSA 25, pg.290
2. Ibid, pg.291
3. Ibid, pg.290
4. Ibid, pg.293
6. Ibid, pg.294
9. Ibid, pg.290
10. Brahmachari, Dr.Mahanambrata : [Bengali] Vol. I, Ist Edition, Sri Mahanambrata Birth Centenary celebration Committee, 2010, pg 89
11. CWM 02, pg.637
12. CWSA 23-24, pg.21
13. CWSA 25, pg.291
14. Ibid, pg.291
15. Ibid, pg.292
16. CWSA 12, pg.409
17. CWSA 25, pg. 292
Date of Update: 16-Aug-21
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu