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

Readings in Chapter XXXI

The Conditions of a Free World-Union


A Free World-Union

Writing in the backdrop of the just concluded World War I, Sri Aurobindo contemplates the concept of a free world union: "A Free world-union must in its very nature be a complete unity based on a diversity and that diversity must be based on free self-determination." (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.540)

It is important to differentiate a "FREE" world-union from a mechanical Unitarian system. A mechanical union would give precedence to convenient geographical demarcations within continents, dispensing the old natural and historic divisions and effacing the "old separative national spirit altogether". (Ibid) It would regard the entire mankind as one single entity. It is doubtful if such a mechanical system could be viable in the long run. The psyche of the race cannot be controlled by mechanical restraints and the suppressed elements in the collective unconscious could rise up to disruptive consequences. That is why the French revolution which Sri Aurobindo described to entirely disregard the "old natural and historic divisions" (Ibid) and ended many feudal laws and practices could not resist the conservative counter-reaction that defeated Napoleon, brought back the Bourbon kings and in the process downgrading reforms.

A Free world-union in the true sense of the term would be primarily based on the psychological principle to which the physical and geographical principles would be subordinated. The object of the psychological principle would be "a living diversity" that in turn would be based on "Free-will" and "natural affinities" : "no constraint or force could be allowed to compel an unwilling nation or distinct groupings of peoples to enter into another system or join itself or remain joined to it for the convenience, aggrandisement or political necessity of another people or even for the general convenience, in disregard of its own wishes." (Ibid) In such a scenario, nations divided from each other geographically (like England or Canada or England and Australia) could cohere together while nations closely grouped would prefer to be separated (like England and Ireland or like Finland and Russia of early 20th century). "Unity would be the largest principle of life, but freedom would be its foundation-stone" (Sri Aurobindo also cautioned there must be a reasonable limit in the application of such a principle so that "impracticable absurdities" do not masquerade as living truth. (Ibid)

It is interesting that while Sri Aurobindo was musing on the concept of free world-union in The Ideal of Human Unity that appeared between 1915 to 1918, Jan Smuts coined the term "British Commonwealth of Nations" in 1917 and in 1919 talked about the new constitutional relations and readjustments in the famous Paris Peace Conference also known as the Versailles Peace Conference which ceremoniously opened on 18 January, 1919 with the victorious Allied powers of World War 1. The Conference formally ended on 21 January 1920 with the inaugural General assembly of the newly formed League of Nations (which was founded on the preceding 10th January) as the first international intergovernmental organization to usher world peace.

Meanwhile in 1926, the British Commonwealth of Nations was formalised with the Balfour Declaration acknowledging that British dominions were in no way subordinate to one another both in external and internal affairs though demonstrating a common allegiance to the Crown. Subsequently in April, 1949, after the end of World War II and the gradual dismantling of the British Empire, the term "British" was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect ground reality. In keeping with the spirit of free self-determination, the British monarch was kept as a figurative head of the Commonwealth and in 1950, after India became a republic and agreed to accept the British Sovereign as a "symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth", King George VI told the Indian politician, Krishna Menon, "So, I've become 'as such'". (Commonwealth of Nations,

Slowly but precariously, a stumbling road to a world-union was being envisioned.


Elimination of War and Recognition of Equal Rights

A Free World -Union should have two desiderata:

(a) the elimination of war, and

(b)the recognition of the equal rights of all peoples.

These two principles are "intimately bound up with each other".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.542). Sri Aurobindo opined that unless this interdependence was acknowledged, there would not be any unification of the human race.

Ideally, people should be allowed to group in accordance with their free-will and natural affinities though this might have difficulties with the political and commercial perspectives. Yet natural groupings, even if initially commercially untenable cannot afford to have allowances for war because "force as arbiter of international differences and a free world-union are two quite incompatible ideas and practically could not coexist."(Ibid, pg.541) The political necessity of war would also not be there as it is usually sported by organically strong nations who do not care about natural groupings. It is expected that in a world-union, the stronger nation would try to deal with differences not by military strength but by a judicious arbitration.

Problems are bound to arise if large masses of men not naturally aligned with each other were included against the will of the nations brought together in the World-State. It would then be "a source of weakness and disunion in the State's international action - unless indeed it were allowed in the international system to weigh by its bulk and population without regard to the will and opinion of the peoples constituting it." (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo gives an example of what could happen if Finland and Poland joined Russia in the post-World War I scenario - the will, sentiment and opinions of the Finns and Poles would have no means of expression in a mechanical and unreal unity in a system where comradeship thrived solely on external bonds.

Thus a world-union has to give allowance not only to principles of justice, reason and human rights, but to the principle of freedom that alone can "ensure a sound and peaceful basis for the world-arrangement".(ibid) To balance the principle of justice with the principle of freedom would be very difficult in a world-order marked by inequality of participant States unless international guidelines for arbitration were set up.

It seems that a forced unity would have both military and political compulsions. Both these compulsions need to be removed. The elimination of war and institution of peaceful arbitration to solve disputes would remove the military compulsion to employ force whenever there is any dissonance. The right of every people to a free voice and status in the world would remove the political fall-out of forcibly bringing people together against their will and right of self-determination. That is why the elimination of war and the acknowledgement of equal rights of all peoples are interlinked with each other in the formation of a viable world-union.

The road to an ideal world unity is long drawn but nevertheless has to proceed through stages that might span more than a century. A year after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines in 1918, the Versailles Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany was signed on 28 June 1919 to fulfil the aspirations of a new global order. Article 14 of that famous treaty projected the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice that would ideally operate by reconciling the political inequality of States with the principle of judicial equality of States. Arbitration by the Permanent Court remained popular, more so as it served to be a quasi-diplomatic instrument. The Swiss lawyer Max Huber's arbitration in American-Dutch dispute regarding the sovereignty of the Island of Palmas (now part of Indonesia) still remains a classical text on the acquisition of sovereignty. When the 1946 International Court of Justice was established, it essentially continued the tradition of the Permanent Court.


The Political and Economic world-views

Sri Aurobindo explained the conditions of a Free World Union:

(1) the removal of war,

(2) the right of self-determination of the peoples, and

(3) the arrangement of the economic life of the world in its new order by mutual and common agreement. (Ibid ,pg.543)

Sri Aurobindo writes in 1918 about the abolition of economic exploitation of one nation by another. He wonders that if the if the element of struggle were removed from the political field, would it lead to the decrease of the same struggle in the economic field. The idea of union if rightfully implemented could actually lead to mutual participation that would enhance prosperity. Writing in the aftermath of World War I, he describes:

"It is obvious, for example, that an independent Finland would profit much more by encouraging the passage of Russian commerce through Finnish ports or an Italian Trieste by encouraging the passage of the commerce of the present Austrian provinces than by setting up a barrier between itself and its natural feeders. An Ireland politically or administratively independent, able to develop its agricultural and technical education and intensification of productiveness, would find a greater advantage in sharing the movement of the commerce of Great Britain than in isolating itself, even as Great Britain would profit more by an agreement with such an Ireland than by keeping her a poor and starving helot on her estate. Throughout the world, the idea and fact of union once definitely prevailing, unity of interests would be more clearly seen and the greater advantage of agreement and mutual participation in a naturally harmonised life over the feverish artificial prosperity created by a stress of separative barriers." (Ibid, pg.542-543)

Problems arise when we try to project natural inequalities between human beings to the domain of nations. While economic inequality remains a highly debated topic and still persists in the post-Cold-War world marked by State conflicts but globalization in a new denouement came as a stepping stone, despite its drawbacks, towards a new world-order. Ironically, a rejuvenated globalization revealed lacunae and inequalities that were overlooked in the pursuit of a rapid growth. While not disbanding globalization, the demand for equity and justice in economic affairs equally as in political and foreign affairs grows with time. Sri Aurobindo reiterates: "The principle of a free world-union being that of the settlement of common affairs by common agreement, this could not be confined to the removal of political differences and the arrangement of political relations alone, but must naturally extend to economic differences and economic relations as well". (Ibid, pg.543)

The debate between the political and economic world-views persists because neither has a monopoly on the other. As Cornelius Castoriadis, a self-critical Marxist, pointed out that the political critique of the economic and the economic critique of the political sends us back to square one because both have deeper roots, a human content. (Howard Dick: The Marxian Legacy, Macmillan, London, 1977 pg.268-269) Sri Aurobindo works on the deeper layers of that human content and locates the urge and impulse for human unity in the matrix of non-dual consciousness from where differentiation starts. That is why a basic unity is the motivation for a fundamental equality. Mark that the equality envisaged is fundamental and not absolute because it has to support differentiation and thus uniqueness and self-determination while not abrogating a commonality in consciousness.


Cultural Diversity

Once the basic conditions of a free world-union, viz. the abolition of war, the right of self-determination and a global economy are addressed, there remains the psychological life that serves the soul of humanity through culture, intellect, morality, aesthetics and spiritual growth which are necessary for a living unity. A living and dynamic unity is different from the usual notion of uniformity that is in consonance with the mechanical age of civilization. Uniformity is an external phenomenon with stress on common parameters and is different from a free development and constant interchange and correlation between diverse cultures and nations "living together in one political State-union than by their political separateness". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.543)

In older times, there are instances of diverse cultures coming together not from a free and willing participation but through forcible inclusion of subject nations by dominant powers. In such an arrangement, the dominant powers were egoistically inclined to impose what they considered to be their superior civilization upon inferior or barbarous people. It was with this reactionary mind-set that the English tried to impose their speech, institutions and ideas on the Welsh and Irish peoples. Likewise, the British tried to anglicise and even Christianize the Indian peoples. Such forcible imposition of alien culture has its own peril. Sri Aurobindo notes in 1918 when the British were still firmly entrenched in their colonial glory: "We can see clearly enough that the long suppression of the Celtic spirit and Celtic culture, superior in spirituality if inferior in certain practical directions to the Latin and Teutonic, was a loss not only to the Celtic peoples, but to the world. India has vehemently rejected the pretensions to superiority of British civilization, culture and religion, while still admitting, not so much the British, as the modern ideals and methods in politics and in the trend to a greater social equality; and it is becoming clear now, even to the more well-informed European minds that the Anglicisation of India would have been a wrong not only to India itself but to humanity".(Ibid, pg.544)

However, Sri Aurobindo also noted that though the old principle of cultural imposition was wrong, yet at times there were certain benefits too. Thus India could link itself with the modern world through the instrumentality of the English language, reshape her own literature, life, culture, spirit and ideals in a new mould to produce an effect on the thought of the West. (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo himself elevated the English language to the status of a deva-bhasha in his epic, Savitri. In a similar vein, though Ireland and Wales ceased to have a living literature, their stamp on the English mind-set would result in an enriched Anglo-Celtic culture.

Thus, though a forcible imposition of a culture on another has its disadvantages and falsifying effects, a fusion also produces something new. If this could be achieved in an imperialistic setting, how much more innovative would have been the result if cultures interacted out of free choice, without compulsions and without belittling each other. This would be the spirit and temperament of a Free World Union. "For the final end is a common world-culture in which each national culture should be, not merged into or fused with some other culture differing from it in principle or temperament, but evolved to its full power and could then profit to that end by all the others as well as give its gains and influences to them, all serving by their separateness and their interaction the common aim and idea of human perfection." (Ibid, pg.545) Even within a nation there may be great cultural variations that could have advantageous ramifications once the national mind-set overcame the old regional conflicts. "A world secure of its peace and freedom might freely devote itself to the intensification of its real human powers of life by the full encouragement and flowering of the individual, local, regional, national mind and power in the firm frame of a united humanity". (Ibid)

A rich cultural diversity will enhance the richness of a Free World-Union. A steam-rolled uniformity cannot be a substitute for a transcultural unity. The Mother's reminiscences on 5th April, 1951 are worth reproducing:

"I met in Japan one of the sons of Tolstoy; he was going round the world preaching human unity. He had caught this from his father and was going everywhere in the world preaching human unity. I met him at some friend's place and asked him, "How are you going to realize this human unity?" Do you know what reply he gave me? "Oh! It is very simple -if everybody spoke the same language, if everybody dressed in the same way, if everybody lived in the same fashion, the whole world would be united!" Then I told him, "That would be a poor world not worth living in". He did not understand me!" (CWM 4, pg.285-286)


The transformation of the national idea

A Free World Union would need an appropriate framework of functioning. Sri Aurobindo, musing on this issue considered several possibilities:

(a) The idea of a world-parliament could seem attractive because a great part of the world populace is accustomed to it "but an assembly of the present unitarian national type could not be the proper instrument of a free world-union of this large and complex kind; it could only be the instrument of a Unitarian World-State" ;(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.546)

(b) The idea of a world federation understood in the Germanic or American form of the early part of 20th century was another possibility to consider but could be "equally inappropriate to the greater diversity and freedom of national development which this type of world-union would hold as one of its cardinal principles". (Ibid)

(c) The idea of a somewhat loose confederation "of the peoples for common human ends, for the removal of all causes of strife and difference, for interrelation and the regulation of mutual aid and interchange, yet leaving to each unit a full internal freedom and power of self-determination, would be the right principle of this unity". (Ibid)

However a loose unity could find it difficult to inhibit centrifugal forces that facilitate separativeness, clashes and strife that in turn could sabotage "the larger principle of oneness". (Ibid) In contrast to a loose federation, a more unitarian world-union would be more suitable to deal with fissiparous and disruptive forces but if the unity is brought about solely through political ideas and machinery and executed through a political and economic spirit, then its durability could not be guaranteed and the unity could turn to be lifeless catapulting to an eventual breakdown. The suppressed desires to recover "the lost element of variability, separateness, independent living" could rear its head leading to an activation of "local, regional, national egoism" and the system could collapse just as the Roman Empire had collapsed. (Ibid) "For in the constant mutability of the human mind and earthly circumstances, as long as life is active, new ideas and change is inevitable." (Ibid)

A free world union in contrast to an unitarian system could provide a matrix of the rise of a new kind of nationalism as the national idea itself could undergo "a radical transformation". (Ibid, pg.547)The national idea could merge "into a new and less strenuously compact form and idea of group-aggregation which could not be separative in spirit, yet would preserve the necessary element of independence and variation needed by both individual and grouping for their full satisfaction and their healthy existence". (Ibid) Nationalism should cease to be possessive and instead lead to internationalism.

The most important aspect of a new non-dogmatic nationalism would be the psychological basis that would complement the political and mechanical narrative. It is the inner psychological change that "could give some chance of durability to the unification". It is the psychological change that could primarily assure "the growth of the living idea or religion of humanity; for only so could there come the psychological modification of life and feeling and outlook which would accustom both individual and group to live in their common humanity first and most, subduing their individual and group egoism, yet losing nothing of their individual or group power to develop and express in its own way the divinity in man which, once the race was assured of its material existence; would emerge as the true object of human existence". (Ibid)

Such a new nationalism bordering on universalism would have a greater possibility to guarantee the durability of a free world union.

In his famous Uttarpara speech delivered on 30 May, 1909 after his release from jail, Sri Aurobindo, hitherto the most fiery nationalist the country had known was already a transformed being when he indicated that nationalism had to rise from being a mere religion, creed and faith to represent the perennial wisdom of the Sanatana Dharma - the mighty phenomenon of spiritual universalism.


Date of Update: 23-Jan-24

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu