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

Readings in Chapter XX

The Drive towards Economic Centralisation


The State and the Society

One of the most important prerequisites for the ideal functioning of any human grouping like the society is that it should be organized around certain norms, follow a set of guidelines to maintain an optimal cohesion and prevent disruption and develop in obedience to law and logic that is in consonance with its own collective psyche. However the development of law and logic can only be possible when the human mind has reached a certain sophistication of intellect, after having overgrown its rustic moorings and subconscious influences. A certain degree of intellectual development is needed for the human mind to be able to enact laws (legislative functions) and a certain degree of collective will has to consolidate to execute the laws (judicial functions). The transition from the human animal to the self-conscious being needs a growth in individual as well as collective consciousness.

"Logically, one would suppose that the conscious and organized determination of its own rules of life should be the first business of a society from which all others should derive and on which they should be dependent and therefore it should naturally be the earliest to develop. But life develops in obedience to its own law and the pressure of forces and not according to the law and the logic of the self-conscious mind; its first course is determined by the subconscient and is only secondarily and derivatively self-conscious. The development of human society has been no exception to the rule; for man, though in the essence of his nature a mental being, has practically started with a largely mechanical mentality as the conscious living being, Nature's human animal, and only afterwards can he be the self-conscious living being, the self-perfecting Manu. That is the course the individual has had to follow; the group-man follows in the wake of the individual and is always far behind the highest individual development. Therefore, the development of the society as an organism consciously and entirely legislating for its own needs, which should be by the logic of reason the first necessary step, is actually in the logic of life the last and culminative step. It enables the society at last to perfect consciously by means of the State the whole organization of its life, military, political, administrative, economic, social, cultural".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 445-446)

One of the main hurdles between the State and the society is that the State possesses the monopoly of legislation, particularly the legal use of violence. Sri Aurobindo explains that if a society is able to perfect itself by consciously legislating its own needs and priorities which in turn acts as a pivot for uniformity of its political, military and administrative functions, then the way is paved for the State and the society to be progressively synonymous. "That is the importance of democracy; that is the importance also of socialism. They are the sign that the society is getting ready to be an entirely self-conscious and therefore a freely and consciously self-regulating organism" (However nearly three decades after writing this in 1917, Sri Aurobindo commented in a footnote: 'Fascism, National Socialism have cut out the "freely" in this formula and set about the task of creating the organized self-regulating consciousness by a violent regimentation'). (Ibid, pg 446) Even as of now, a perfect State synonymous with a perfectly self-conscious society is yet to be a reality while "modern democracy and modern socialism are only a first crude and bungling attempt at that consummation, an inefficient hint, and not a freely intelligent realisation". (Ibid) A progressively ideal State can only emerge from a progressively evolving mind-set of a society manifesting through the individual and collective consciousness of the society. The anarchists even dream of a Stateless society which is an extension of the yet Utopian concept of a freely developing society that does not need any coercion or imposition of the State. A coercive State would never tolerate a freely growing society that respects individual variations and build harmony in the bosom of a variegated diversity. No wonder, the ISIS, who have been carrying on the most horrendous genocide to establish the Islamic State at the cost of the freely evolving organic society, declared, albeit in a retrograde vein, and that too in the second decade of the twenty-first century (so much for human progress!) that "All faiths who back democracy must die" (The Times of India, 22nd December, 2014).


The Evolving Law

Sri Aurobindo traces the evolution of law (or the Roman lex) from "a mass of binding habits, nomoi, mores, acara 'that gradually' become instituta, things that acquire a fixed and formal status, institutions, and crystallize into laws". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 446). It is obvious that at the beginnings of the consolidation of human societies, the human life was striving to grow in all directions and naturally the societal laws that were evolving embraced the whole of life, intertwined with each other so that the harmony of a human grouping could grow into a progressive movement. A priest conducting death rituals would not fit into the role of a charlatan, a king could not stoop down to the role of a thief and the chivalry of a fighter would not match the vulgarity of a rapist. There was no distinction between the political and administrative, the social and the religious law. "Such was the type of the ancient Jewish law and of the Hindu Shastra which preserved up to recent times this early principle of society in spite of the tendencies of specialization and separation which have triumphed elsewhere as a result of the normal development of the analytical and practical reason of mankind. This complex customary law evolved indeed, but by a natural development of the body of social habits in obedience to changing ideas and more and more complex necessities. There was no single and fixed legislative authority to determine them by conscious shaping and selection or in anticipation of popular consent or by direct ideative action upon the general consensus of need and opinion. Kings and prophets and Rishis and Brahmin jurists might exercise such an action according to their power and influence, but none of these were the constituted legislative sovereign; the king in India was the administrator of the Dharma and not at all or only exceptionally and to a hardly noticeable extent the legislator." (Ibid, pg 446-447)

It is customary to ascribe the origin of law to a first and original legislator, "a Manu, Moses, Lycurgus" (Ibid, pg 447); but Sri Aurobindo, following the line of modern enquiry, dismisses the historicity of any such tradition. He considers Manu to be a symbolic icon, a representative figure of the self-conscious mental being, striving for self-perfection and capable of manifesting powers which were hitherto hidden as potentialities in the larger mentality of subtle worlds (figuratively, Manu and his sons are described in the Purana to reign in the subtle worlds). When this mental being in the journey to enrich consciousness, acquired and consolidated the analytical and practical reasoning power, the basis for a complex customary law of conduct (manava-dharmasastra) was laid that later differentiated into specialized functions. In fact, the commonality in universal laws throughout the world arises from the analytical reasoning faculty of the mind.

It may also be argued that in spite of laws arising from the rational base of the mind, we also find laws belonging to certain groups, sects or religions that do not satisfy rational criteria or appear not to be in consonance with the Time-Spirit. Sri Aurobindo explains that the mental being is not only capable of rationality but also capable to manifest supra-rational powers like intuition. Such intuitive wisdom was communicated in history to selected Messiahs or Prophets to organize individual and collective life in such a way as to hasten the march of civilization. This wisdom to organize individual and social life included among other things, guidelines for laws that would regulate the rules of a qualitative life. As such guidelines sprang from supra-rational sources like intuition or revelation, the laws constructed from such guidelines may not be explained by our modern lines of rational enquiry. "If there comes an embodied Manu, a living Moses or Mahomed, he is only the prophet or spokesman of the Divinity who is veiled in the fire and the cloud, Jehovah on Sinai, Allah speaking through his angels. Mahomed, as we know, only developed the existing social, religious and administrative customs of the Arab people into a new system dictated to him often in a state of trance, in which he passed from his conscient into his superconscient self, by the Divinity to his secret intuitive mind. All that may be suprarational or, if you will, irrational, but it represents a different stage of human development from the government of society by its rational and practical mind which in contact with life's changing needs and permanent necessities demands a created and codified law determined by a fixed legislative authority, the society's organized brain or centre". (Ibid)

It is also true that certain human collectivities may still repose faith on laws that need to have a reappraisal in consonance with the Time-Spirit. Sri Aurobindo held firmly that the eternal need to be differentiated from the temporal to keep the spirit of Truth ever-fresh.


Shift from foreign to internal politics

The transition of the collectivity from its early mechanical and anarchic mode to a self-regulating mechanism needed the consolidation of the community around a central authority, "at first a distinct central force but afterwards more and more conterminous with the society itself or directly representing it , -- which gradually takes over the specialized and separated parts of the social activity" (Ibid, pg 448). It is only natural that the first leader of the collectivity was one who organized the group to repulse attacks by extraneous agents or who conquered other people or habitats in the zeal of expansion. It was only after consolidating this leadership in external affairs and thus making the community secure against external disruptive forces that one turned inward to take up executive power within the community. Sri Aurobindo writes about the genesis of the central authority in developing communities, "At first this authority was the king, elective or hereditary, in his original character a war-leader and at home only the chief, the head of the elders or the strong men and the convener of the nation and the army, a nodus of its action, but not the principal determinant: in war only where entire centralisation of power is the first condition of effective action, was he entirely supreme. As host-leader, strategos, he was also imperator, the giver of the absolute command. When he extended this combination of headship and rule from outside inward, he tended to become the executive power, not merely the chief instrument of social administration but the executive ruler". (Ibid)

As the natural choice of the central authority was initially vested on the one who was adept in dealing with external pressure, it was natural for the leader to be "thus supreme in foreign than in internal politics". (Ibid) The subject people of a nation, country or kingdom could understand and criticize the internal policies of the sovereign power, could usurp the sovereign by mass-power but had no inkling of secretly conducted foreign pacts and treaties. The vox populi had no impact on foreign policies and the commoners could not really withhold their sanction in a crisis, whether for war and peace, as anyway they were consulted at the last hour (Ibid). The old monarchies conducted foreign affairs according to whims, fancies, passions, predilections, personal ambitions and family interests. (Ibid, pg 449) The situation remained the same from the early times to the time of the World Wars in the twentieth century as European governments who were compelled "in internal affairs to defer to the popular will or to persuade or cajole the nation" were in the same breath allowed "to determine their acts by a secret diplomacy" in which the people had no voice "and the representatives of the nation" had "only a general power of criticizing or ratifying its results". (Ibid, pg 448) "The demand for real parliamentary control for foreign policy and even for an open diplomacy .....indicates one more step in the transformation, far more complete in spite of the modern boast of democracy, from a monarchical to and oligarchic to a democratic system, the taking over of all sovereign functions from the one sovereign administrator or the few dominant executive men by the society as a whole organized in a democratic State". (Ibid, pg 449)


The Control of the Purse

Sri Aurobindo traces the genesis of law in relation to the polity to understand how the control of the purse that holds the life-line of a nation shifts from the hands of the monarchy to the people. The shift of the financial power from the monarchy to the people was effectuated in England not through brute force but through a graded series of legislations. Indeed without a development of appropriate legislation in accordance to the shifting demands of the Zeitgeist, the shift of the financial power would not have occurred. "Monarchy in its impulse towards a despotic centrality has always sought to engross and struggled to retain this power; for the control over the purse of the nation is the most important sign and the most effective element of real sovereignty, more essential perhaps than the control over life and limb" (Ibid, pg 449-450). Despite the fact that the administrative side of a national organization has to work in tandem with three principal parts, financial, executive proper and judicial, despotic regimes can usurp this balance for confiscation and despoliation. "The financial power carries with it the control of the public purse and the expenditure of the wealth contributed by the society for national purposes, and it is evident that this must pass into the hands of whatever authority has taken up the business of organizing and making efficient the united action of the community. But that authority in its impulse towards an undivided and uncontrolled gestation, a complete unification of powers must naturally desire not only to determine the expenditure according to its own free will, but to determine also the contributions of the society to the public purse both in its amount and in its repartition over the individuals and classes who constitute the nation".(Ibid, pg 449) A plausible corrective would be to have a system where the ruler has to bargain with the subjects over public contribution and methods of taxation. Obviously such a system needed a consolidation of a portion of vital power in an inferior estate of the realm like a people's assembly which could be turned against the ruler if needed. This was effectively carried out in England during the rule of the Stuarts.

The British parliament successfully restrained James I who believed in the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and wanted to increase his own revenues from import and export duties (the tonnage and poundage). In 1621, Parliament adopted the Great Protestation to curb the monarch's power over the purse. Charles I, son and successor of James I had the same mind-set and began raising taxes without Parliament's consent. In 1628, Parliament had to pass the Petition of Right that claimed that the king was not above the law. The Long Parliament that was set up in 1640 later passed the Great Remonstrance to assert its right on revenues. Subsequently, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 marked the end of the conflict between the absolutism of English monarchy and parliamentary rule. The Bill of Rights in 1689 advocated free speech protection, power over the purse for Parliament and restriction of regal control over army. Henceforth, the king ceased to be a law-giver and parliament would forever hold the power of the purse while the monarch would just hold executive powers that would become ceremonial with time. A hundred years later, the ripples of that struggle would influence American claim for liberties that got echoed in the Bill of Rights and the great slogan of No taxation without representation. (

Sri Aurobindo highly appreciated the chain of events in England that shifted the power of the purse: "the supreme political instinct of the British people fixed, in the struggle with the monarchy, upon the question of taxation as the first vital point in a conflict for the power of the purse. Once that was settled in the Parliament by the defeat of the Stuarts, the transformation of the monarchical sovereignty into the sovereignty of the people or, more accurately, the shifting of the organic control from the throne to the aristocracy, thence to the bourgeoisie, and again to the whole people...was only a question of time. In France, the successful practical absorption of this control was the strength of the monarchy; it was its inability to manage with justice and economy the public purse, its unwillingness to tax the enormous riches of the aristocracy and clergy as against the crushing taxation of the people and the consequent necessity of deferring again to the nation which provided the opportunity for the Revolution" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 450)

In the modern age, a representation of the whole nation in one form or the other is claimed by the controlling authority. Yet Sri Aurobindo cautions in his 1917 manifesto that in an increasingly complex global scenario, a mere focus on taxation cannot solve financial problems or address injustice. What is needed is a visionary "organization and administration of the economic life of the society which are preparing the revolutions of the future". (Ibid)


Date of Update: 24-Jan-23

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu