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

Readings in Chapter XIII

The Formation of the Nation-Unit - The Three Stages


A nation based on the psychological principle of unity needs a long preparation and its evolution from a morass of heterogeneity has to proceed initially through external pressures that go on moulding a brittle framework till conditions are optimal for a consolidation of nationhood in the psyche of the people at large. Sri Aurobindo marks three stages through which the concept of nationhood grew:

1. The first stage is a basic and somewhat loose scaffolding, resistant to progress yet serves a compelling need to maintain the basic tenets of social stability and cultural integrity;

2. The second stage is a stringent organisation of power and administration for unity and centrality of control leading to a general leveling and uniformity ; and

3. The third stage breaks the stereotypy of organisation leading to a free internal development but can come only when the nation as a formation has stabilized and "unity has become a mental and vital habit", otherwise anarchy would ensue. (Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity,pg.374)

First Stage of Formation of the Nation-Unit

The first stage of the evolving nation-unit erects a loose socio-cultural framework based on the phenomenological value of the elements needed in the construction. It is interesting to note the commonality in such a formation in both Europe and Asia which moved "towards the evolution of a social hierarchy based on a division according to four different social activities, --spiritual function, political domination and the double economic function of mercantile production and interchange and dependent labour or service".... "The feudal period of Europe with its four orders of the clergy, the king and nobles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariate has a sufficiently close resemblance to the Indian fourfold order of the sacerdotal, military and mercantile classes and the Shudras" (Ibid, pg. 375). Sri Aurobindo points out that the same type of social structuring occurred both in Europe and Asia as the "motive-force everywhere was the necessity of a large effective form of common social life marked by fixity of status through which individual and small communal interests might be brought under the yoke of a sufficient religious, political and economic unity and likeness". (Ibid)

It is interesting to note that despite in-built limitations, the framework of social stratification served as a template for growth towards a nascent nationhood in both Europe and India . Where such social scaffolding was absent, it was difficult for the impulse towards nation-formation to have an optimal push. Sri Aurobindo observed in 1916, "It is notable that Islamic civilization, with its dominant principle of equality and brotherhood in the faith and its curious institution of a slavery which did not prevent the slave from rising even to the throne, was never able to evolve such a form of society and failed, in spite of its close contact with political and progressive Europe, to develop strong and living, well-organised and conscious nation-units even after the disruption of the empire of the Caliphs; it is only now under the pressure of modern ideas and conditions that this is being done".(Ibid)

The evolution of the nation-idea that has to be consolidated in the psyche of a heterogeneous group of people gets facilitated when a social framework is already available as a template regardless of how the framework was originated at different places. (In Europe, the social hierarchy was derived from political, social and economic ideas. In India, the caste system was derived characteristically from religious and ethical ideas though practically the dominant function of the system was social and economic. Interested readers might refer to the article "The Caste system of India-an Aurobindonian perspective" by the present author in the downloads section of Once a social hierarchy stabilized itself, one or more social groups would tend to dominate other groups and this interaction would lay the direction of the evolving nation-idea. Thus the warrior group could predominate leading towards a nation marked by military might. The religious group could predominate leading to a theocratic state. The intellectual group could predominate leading to a nation marked by rich aesthetic culture. And even though subdued initially, the proletariat could rise up in times of crisis and change the power equation, redefining a nation's identity.

Sri Aurobindo lists several examples of how the nation-idea got consolidated at different parts of the world:

1. "Japan with its great feudal order under the spiritual and secular headship of the Mikado and afterwards the double headship of the Mikado and the Shogun evolved one of the most vigorous and self-conscious nation-units the world has seen". (Ibid, pg. 375-376)

2. "China with its great learned class uniting in one the Brahmin and Kshatriya functions of spiritual and secular knowledge and executive rule and its Emperor and Son of Heaven for head and type of the national unity succeeded in becoming a united nation".(Ibid, pg. 376)

3. In Europe, the conflict of the Church and the monarchical State was an important determinant of history and "the Church was obliged to renounce its claim to independence and dominance over the temporal power. Even in the nations which remained Catholic, a real independence and dominance of the temporal authority was successfully vindicated; for the King of France exercised a control over the Gallican Church and clergy which rendered all effective interference of the Pope in French affairs impossible. In Spain, in spite of the close alliance between Pope and King and the theoretical admission of the former's complete spiritual authority, it was really the temporal head who decided the ecclesiastical policy and commanded the terrors of Inquisition".(Ibid, pg. 376-377)

4. Usually the social order evolved expectedly "in the direction of a secular organization and headship; it created within the nation itself a clear political self-consciousness and, as a consequence, either the subordination of the sacerdotal class to the military and administrative or else their equality or even their fusion under a common spiritual and secular head"(Ibid, pg. 376) The remarkable exception to this phenomenon was mediaeval India. Here the social trajectory "turned towards the social dominance of the sacerdotal class and the substitution of a common spiritual for a common political consciousness as the basis of the national feeling. No lasting secular centre was evolved, no great imperial or kingly head which by its prestige, power, antiquity and claim to general reverence and obedience could over-balance or even merely balance this sacerdotal prestige and predominance and create a sense of political as well as spiritual and cultural oneness"(Ibid, pg. 376) Thus in the political sense of the term, India was not a composite nation. It actually took more than two thousand years for a completely foreign intervention to stimulate the emergence of political self-consciousness that consolidated the construct of India as a nation in the psyche of the people.


Second Stage of Formation of the Nation-Unit

The first stage of formation of the nation-unit institutionalized a social hierarchy. At a certain point in time, this hierarchy proved to be counter-productive to the progress of nationhood. The consolidation of nationhood needed two cardinal principles to be worked out:

1. The centralisation of common life under a secular head; and

2. The creation of a political self-consciousness.

Neither of these two objectives could be achieved unless the rigidity of the initial and somewhat rustic social hierarchy was surpassed. If the social hierarchy did not modify itself, either the warrior or the theocracy would dominate leaving the rest of the people exploited, languished or deprived. Sri Aurobindo elaborates, 'The direction needed was a change from the spiritual authority of one class and the political authority of another to a centralisation of the common life of the evolving nation under a secular rather than a religious head or, if the religious tendency in the people be too strong to separate things spiritual and temporal, under a national head who shall be the fountain of authority in both departments. Especially was it necessary for the creation of a political self-consciousness, without which no separate nation-unit can be successfully formed, that the sentiments, activities, instruments proper to its creation should for a time take the lead and all others stand behind and support them. A Church or a dominant sacerdotal caste remaining within its own function cannot form the organised political unity of a nation; for it is governed by other than political and administrative considerations and cannot be expected to subordinate to them its own characteristic feelings and interests. It can only be otherwise if the religious caste or sacerdotal class become also as in Tibet the actually ruling political class of the country".(Ibid,pg.377-378)

The case of India is peculiar. Despite surviving the vicissitudes of time, it never had till modern times an all-pervading national political self-consciousness or an organized national unity that was distinctly separate from a spiritual and cultural oneness. Sri Aurobindo castigates the dominant sacerdotal Brahmin caste for this phenomenon. Though this caste did not actually rule and administer, it "dominated thought and society and determined the principles of national life" and "has always stood in the way of the development followed by the more secular-minded European and Mongolian peoples".(Ibid, pg. 378) Political and social considerations came to the forefront only when the Brahmin caste underwent two notable changes (Ibid):

(1). With the advent of European influence, the Brahmin caste lost the best part of its exclusive hold on the national life, and

(2). The impact of modernity led to a massive secularization of the Brahmin caste itself.

Thus, nature had to utilize its instrument of foreign dominance to help India emerge into an independent nation. However, despite the resistance of the Brahmin caste, there were some pockets in India where a semblance of national self-consciousness was displayed that was not of a predominantly spiritual character. The Rajputs of Mewar accepted the Raja in a double role, the head of the society as well as that of the nation (elsewhere the head of the society was the Brahmin). In fact, "the peoples which having achieved national self-consciousness came nearest to achieving also organised political unity were the Sikhs for whom Guru Govind Singh deliberately devised a common secular and spiritual centre in the Khalsa, and the Mahrattas who not only established a secular head, representative of the conscious nation, but so secularised themselves that, as it were, the whole people indiscriminately, Brahmin and Shudra, became for a time potentially a people of soldiers, politicians and administrators".(Ibid, pg. 377.


The modification of the social hierarchy invariably led to the concentration of power in the hands of a dominant monarchical government. In the modern world, kingship is a figurative or decorative but inoperative entity that is tolerated (obviously at the expense of the public money) if not venerated. But this does not diminish the importance of a powerful kingship in shaping the destiny of medieval nations. "Even in liberty-loving, insular and individualistic England, the Plantagenets and Tudors were the real and active nucleus round which the nation grew into firm form and into adult strength; and in Continental countries the part played by the Capets and their successors in France, by the House of Castile in Spain and by the Romanoffs and their predecessors in Russia is still more prominent. In the last of these instances, one might almost say that without the Ivans, Peters and Catherines there would have been no Russia. And even in modern times, the almost medieval role played by the Hohenzollerns in the unification and growth of Germany was watched with an uneasy astonishment by the democratic peoples to whom such a phenomenon was no longer intelligible and seemed hardly to be serious"(Ibid, pg. 379) Similar phenomenons were witnessed in the first period of formation of new nations in the Balkans, in the role of the Mikado during the evolution of Japan into a modern nation and in the attempt of a brief dictatorship in revolutionary China to convert itself into a new national monarchy (Ibid).Despite all comedies and tragedies associated with it, the monarchy represented a subconscious necessity in the psyche of the people to seek for a king to consolidate their aspirations and centralize and assist their growth. "It is a sense of this great role played by the kingship in centralising and shaping national life at the most critical stage of its growth which explains the tendency common in the East and not altogether absent from the history of the West to invest it with an almost sacred character; it explains also the passionate loyalty with which great national dynasties or their successors have been served even in the moment of their degeneration and downfall". (Ibid, pg. 379-380)

However the institution of monarchy had its inbuilt limitations and had to be surpassed for another progressive phase in the history of formation of the nation-unit.


Third Stage of Formation of the Nation-Unit

The culmination of the nation-unit into a monarchical system consolidates political power and administrative unity but the social consciousness cannot remain bound at this stage. The nation-unit is not only dependent on external conditions for viability; it also has to cater to the inner needs of the collective consciousness that is poised along the trajectory of evolutionary growth. Once there is consolidation of the nation-unit, the collective psyche yearns naturally for an inner expansion. "The nation-unit is not formed and does not exist merely for the sake of existing; its purpose is to provide a larger mould of human aggregation in which the race, and not only classes and individuals, may move towards its full human development. So long as the labour of formation continues, this larger development may be held back and authority and order be accepted as the first consideration, but not when the aggregate is sure of its existence and feels the need of an inner expansion. Then the old bonds have to be burst; the means of formation have to be discarded as obstacles to growth".(Ibid pg 382) This need of the collective psyche for an inner expansion expresses as a quest for LIBERTY. Sri Aurobindo explains that liberty becomes the "watchword of the race" and seeks to be manifest in three unique situations:

(a) Socio-religious sphere: "The ecclesiastical order which suppressed liberty of thought and new ethical and social development, has to be dispossessed of its despotic authority, so that man may be mentally and spiritually free".(Ibid)

(b) Socio-political sphere: "The monopolies and privileges of the king and aristocracy have to be destroyed, so that all may take their share of the national power, prosperity and activity".(Ibid)

(c) Socio-economic sphere: "Finally, bourgeois capitalism has to be induced or forced to consent to an economic order in which suffering, poverty and exploitation shall be eliminated and the wealth of the community be more equally shared by all who help to create it. In all directions, men have to come into their own, realize the dignity and freedom of the manhood within them and give play to their utmost capacity". (Ibid, pg. 382-383)

The Collapse of the Monarchy

In a post-colonial and post-modern world, the old monarchical absolutism is naturally viewed with suspicion as it implies a suppression of internal liberties of the people but a scientific and objective retrospective shows the historical value of monarchism at a certain phase of nation-building .There was a need to rise from a loose and somewhat chaotic social structure to a state of uniformity and a centralization of power, administration and authority at the cost of liberty and free variation. It was this trend to uniformity that consolidated certain monarchical nations to uniqueness and robust vitality; viz. "In England, the period of the New Monarchy from Edward IV to Elizabeth, in France the great Bourbon period from Henry IV to Louis XIV, in Spain the epoch which extends from Ferdinand to Philip II, in Russia the rule of Peter the Great and Catherine" (Ibid, pg 380). Paradoxically, it was this same trend of absolutism that later became clothed in a different garb so that absolutism could achieve an "astonishing completeness" in the totalitarian ideology of Russia, Germany and Italy in the first part of 20th century.(Ibid)

Absolutism implies not only political authority and administrative control but also moral policing. Therefore, monarchical authority had to be complemented by religious allegiance in the form of religious uniformity resulting in a more severe deprivation of individual liberty even at the cost of human blood. "It is from this point of view that we shall most intelligently understand the attempt of the Tudors and the Stuarts to impose both monarchical authority and religious uniformity on the people and seize the real sense of the religious wars in France, the Catholic monarchical rule in Spain with its atrocious method of the Inquisition and the oppressive will of the absolute Czars in Russia to impose also an absolute national Church". (Ibid, pg 380-381) It is interesting that when the pope tried to limit the powers of Inquisition he himself sanctioned in 1478, he was opposed not by religious fundamentalists but by the Spanish Crown! In fact, the grand Spanish inquisitor, Tomas De Torquemada was alone responsible for burning about 2000 heretics at the stake. The Spanish inquisition was also introduced into Mexico, Peru, Sicily (1517), and the Netherlands (1522), and it was not entirely suppressed in Spain till the early 19th century (Britannica Ready Reference Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, 2005).

The effort towards absolutism simultaneously in both political and religious domains could not be equally effective everywhere, it could not sustain in places where the quest for liberty had already began to manifest. "The effort failed in England because after Elizabeth it no longer answered to any genuine need; for the nation was already well-formed, strong and secure against disruption from without. Elsewhere it succeeded both in Protestant and Catholic countries, or in the rare cases as in Poland where this movement could not take place or failed, the result was disastrous. Certainly, it was everywhere an outrage on the human soul, but it was not merely due to any natural wickedness of the rulers; it was an inevitable stage in the formation of the nation-unit by political and mechanical means. If it left England the sole country in Europe where liberty could progress by natural gradations that was due, no doubt, largely to the strong qualities of the people but still more to its fortunate history and insular circumstances". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 381)

The monarchical State successfully made "Religion the handmaid of a secular throne". (Ibid) It destroyed the liberties of the aristocracy except conditional privileges, pitted the bourgeoisie against the nobles, destroyed civil liberties except ornamental forms and so impoverished the proletariat that they had no liberties at all to be destroyed. "Thus the monarchical State concentrated in its own activities the whole national life. The Church served it with its moral influence, the nobles with their military traditions and ability, the bourgeoisie with the talent or chicane of its lawyers and the literary genius or administrative power of its scholars, thinkers and men of inborn business capacity; the people gave taxes and served with their blood the personal and national ambitions of the monarchy". (Ibid) Such a state of affairs could last as long as it would be tolerated for a conscious or subconscious need of national life until the quest for liberty gathered an optimum momentum to become self-conscious. "By changing the old order into a mere simulacrum the monarchy had destroyed its own base. The sacerdotal authority of the Church, once questioned on spiritual grounds, could not be long maintained by temporal means, by the sword and the law; the aristocracy keeping its privileges but losing its real functions became odious and questionable to the classes below it; the bourgeoisie conscious of its talent, irritated by its social and political inferiority, awakened by the voice of its thinkers, led the movement of revolt and appealed to the help of the populace; the masses-dumb, oppressed, suffering-rose with this new support which had been denied to them before and overturned the whole social hierarchy. Hence the collapse of the old world and the birth of a new age". (Ibid, pg. 382)

The problem of Liberty and Equality

It is true that the quest for liberty triumphed against monarchical absolutism. It is equally true that mere liberty cannot ensure the uniformity and organized efficiency of absolutism. In fact, liberty alone is not sufficient to hold a social structure, 'justice also is necessary and becomes a pressing demand; the cry for equality arises' (Ibid). It has still not been possible to perfectly reconcile and harmonize liberty with equality. A noted economist (Bharat Jhunjhunwala , The Statesman,Calcutta,13th April,2013, pg 6) showed how poverty alleviation in a non-monarchical, democratic third world country (that did not suppress political liberty) was paradoxically related to an increase in economic inequality. The principle of State-sponsored liberty allows unfettered industrial growth and big companies can make huge profits and pay fat salaries that other sections of the society cannot afford to have leading to a gaping economic inequality. On the other hand taxes collected from such companies can be used for providing food, clothing and shelter to the poor. Thus it is at the cost of economic inequality that poverty alleviation can be carried out. On the other hand, less economic inequality does not mean less poverty. Communist Albania had a relatively low distribution of income but had widespread poverty. The distribution of wealth of the rich among the poor can be a measure of economic equality but in the absence of a visionary model of growth and investment can lead to stagnation; something that happened to China during the cultural revolution of the sixties. The elite were sent to villages to learn from peasants so as to promote equality but the resultant economic stagnation led subsequently to the adoption of the capitalist model of development.

In the Aurobindonian parlance, the conflict between liberty and equality persists for two cardinal reasons:

(a) We have yet to place the value of equality in the correct context in the holarchy of values; and

(b) We need to appreciate how liberty and equality can be reconciled along a consciousness paradigm.

Sri Aurobindo explains that the term equality was initially aimed against the unjust and unnecessary inequalities of the old world-order. It must be acknowledged that absolute equality is not only pragmatically but metaphysically non-existent in a world of dualities, multiplicity, variability and hierarchy that does not represent the unitary consciousness. At best what can be achieved is that under a just social order, "there must be an equal opportunity, an equal training for all to develop their faculties and to use them, and, so far as may be, an equal share in the advantages of the aggregate life as the right of all who contribute to the existence, vigour and development of that life by the use of their capacities"... An ideal of "free co-operation guided and helped by a wise and liberal central authority expressing the common will' (Ibid, pg. 383) would have facilitated such a model of social equality. However, in a travesty of history, the urge for equality has paradoxically "reverted to the old notion of an absolute and efficient State - no longer monarchical, ecclesiastical, aristocratic but secular, democratic and socialistic-with liberty sacrificed to the need of equality and aggregate efficiency". (Ibid) No wonder, Sri Aurobindo commented that anarchy was even better than unassimilated repression (S.Mohanty, Sri Aurobindo--A Contemporary Reader, Editor's Prologue, Routledge, New Delhi,2008, pg 47) . In his world-view, it is only when a Gnostic community of evolved individuals manifests that equality can be ideally established at a collective level.

Sri Aurobindo explains that liberty and equality can only be harmonized at a deeper level of consciousness that facilitates a comradeship not on mechanical brotherhood which inevitably ends in a fiasco but on soul-kinship. Such an endeavor needs a surpassing of both the individual and the collective ego. "Perhaps liberty and equality, liberty and authority, liberty and organized efficiency can never be quite satisfactorily reconciled so long as man individual and aggregate lives by egoism, so long as he cannot undergo a great spiritual and psychological change and rise beyond mere communal association to that third ideal which some vague inner sense made the revolutionary thinkers of France add to their watchwords of liberty and equality, -- the greatest of all the three, though till now only an empty word on man's lips, the ideal of fraternity or, less sentimentally and more truly expressed, an inner oneness. That no mechanism social, political, religious has ever created or can create; it must take birth in the soul and rise from hidden and divine depths within" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 383). "A deeper brotherhood, a yet unfound law of love is the only sure foundation possible for a perfect social evolution, no other can replace it. But this brotherhood and love will not proceed by the vital instincts or the reason where they can be met, baffled or deflected by opposite reasoning and other discordant instincts. Nor will it found itself in the natural heart of man where there are plenty of other passions to combat it. It is in the soul that it must find its roots; the love which is founded upon a deeper truth of our being, the brotherhood or, let us say,--for this is another feeling than any vital or mental sense of brotherhood, a calmer more durable motive-force,--the spiritual comradeship which is the expression of an inner realization of oneness". (Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, pg 220)


Date of Update: 20-Jun-22

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu