The Tension Between Fulfillment of the Individual and the Demand of the Social Order

A tension arises between the desire of the individual to achieve his own advancement and achievement of his goals and desires, and the focus of a society on subordinating the individual entirely to the goals and needs of the social order. At one extreme, the individual looks upon society as a support that is there solely to aid him in his own fulfillment; at the other, the society looks upon itself as the essential basis of continuity and progress, with individuals as the asset of the society. In the one, the benefit to the individual is paramount; in the other, the individual counts for very little while the benefit to the social order is the major factor. No society can actually embody either extreme, but there have been examples throughout history where one or the other perspective was in the ascendancy and we can see echoes of these differences in the historical perspective of the USA as favoring individual freedom and that of various communist states as favoring the collective progress. Of course, nowadays, these lines have been very substantially blurred as society the world-over becomes more complex and becomes more uniform in fact, if not in ideology.

Sri Aurobindo explores this question: “The ideal and absolute solution from the individual’s standpoint would be a society that existed not for itself, for its all-overriding collective purpose, but for the good of the individual and his fulfilment, for the greater and more perfect life of all its members. Representing as far as possible his best self and helping him to realise it, it would respect the freedom of each of its members and maintain itself not by law and force but by the free and spontaneous consent of its constituent persons.”

Inasmuch as the desires and drives of the individual needed to be tempered and widened in the evolutionary process of Nature, it is clear that a certain element of societal claim needs to be recognised. “A general but not complete domination of the society over the individual is the easier way and it is the system that Nature from the first instinctively adopts and keeps in equilibrium by rigorous law, compelling custom and a careful indoctrination of the still subservient and ill-developed intelligence of the human creature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 184-185

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The Benefits and Limitations of the Social Moral-Ethical Code

When we are confronted with the raw animal instincts and reactions in our nature, it is easy to determine the benefit of an external code of behavior that begins to modify, regulate and control those impulses. In any social order, the basic framework of an external code of moral or ethical guidelines or laws ameliorates the worst abuses that occur through the workings of greed, desire, and the struggle for power or control of one’s life. Without this murder, rapine, theft, terms which have been defined through the development of codes of conduct, would potentially be prevalent, and we would come down to pure “dog eat dog” “survival of the fittest” behavior where the strong bully, manipulate and control those who are weaker or dependent. Even with all our social and moral laws, there remains a strong element of this kind of behavior residual in humanity. Sri Aurobindo comments on the benefit of this type of moral-ethical code in the society: “It is an advantage at first when man is crude and incapable of self-control and self-finding, because it erects a power other than that of his personal egoism through which that egoism may be induced or compelled to moderate its savage demands, to discipline its irrational and often violent movements and even to lose itself sometimes in a larger and less personal egoism.”

There have been proponents of the concept that certain individuals should be exempt from these rules based on their evolutionary status. Most of these invoked the idea of some kind of Nietzschean “superman” or ruling spirit who could disregard these rules. It is possible that the idea was mis-applied and thus gained substantial notoriety, particularly when it was used to justify mass killing, genocide or other incomprehensible acts of inhumanity.

Sri Aurobindo takes up this possibility as one of the future evolutionary stages that must be realised through transcendence of the mental framework overall in the transition to a truly divine action: “It is a disadvantage to the adult spirit ready to transcend the human formula because it is an external standard which seeks to impose itself on him from outside, and the condition of his perfection is that he shall grow from within and in an increasing freedom, not by the suppression but by the transcendence of his perfected individuality, not any longer by a law imposed on him that trains and disciplines his members but by the soul from within breaking through all previous forms to possess with its light and transmute his members.”

Nothing in this statement justifies thereby the lowering of the standard to justify the going back to the lower animal-human standard; rather it raises the idea of a higher standard that goes beyond the moral-ethical framework based on a much clearer, purer and higher action.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 183-184

The Second Standard of Human Conduct

Man is not a solitary creature; rather he associates in groupings such as family, tribe, team, community, nation, society and civilisation, with numerous sub-groupings based on defined characteristics such as religion, political party, club, and various “affinity” groups. Once this is recognised, the human being modifies his behavior from the pure law of survival and self-aggrandisement to include and take account of the needs, wishes, desires, or norms developed by the social grouping(s) to which he belongs. This represents a widening of perspective and a clear evolutionary advance over the first standard of conduct.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this point: “Man, pressing after the growth of his separate individuality and its fullness and freedom, is unable to satisfy even his own personal needs and desires except in conjunction with other men; he is a whole in himself and yet incomplete without others. This obligation englobes his personal law of conduct in a group-law which arises from the formation of a lasting group-entity with a collective mind and life of its own to which his own embodied mind and life are subordinated as a transitory unit.” This does not imply that the individual is ENTIRELY subsumed within the group-entity as there is still a purpose to the individuality in the divine manifestation.

While it is clear that the group-life is first and foremost an extension of the individual’s own drive toward survival and growth, it does begin to take on forms that become unique to that grouping. “The satisfaction of personal idea and feeling, need and desire, propensity and habit has to be constantly subordinated, by the necessity of the situation and not from any moral or altruistic motive, to the satisfaction of the ideas and feelings, needs and desires, propensities and habits, not of this or that other individual or number of individuals, but of the society as a whole. This social need is the obscure matrix of morality and of man’s ethical impulse.”

There arises something of a tension, if not an outright conflict, between the first law aggrandising the individual’s life and survival and the second law modifying that drive by the needs of a social grouping. “Man has in him two distinct master impulses, the individualistic and the communal, a personal life and a social life, a personal motive of conduct and a social motive of conduct. The possibility of their opposition and the attempt to find their equation lie at the very roots of human civilisation and persist in other figures when he has passed beyond the vital animal into a highly individualised mental and spiritual progress.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 182-183

The First Standard of Human Conduct

Every human being acts under one code of conduct or another, whether or not they consciously recognise it to be so. Sri Aurobindo has classified these standards under four distinct groupings: “The first is personal need, preference and desire; the second is the law and good of the collectivity; the third is an ideal ethic; the last is the highest divine law of the nature.”

Each of these corresponds to an evolutionary stage in the development of humanity. “Man starts on the long career of his evolution with only the first two of these four to enlighten and lead him; for they constitute the law of his animal and vital existence, and it is as the vital and physical animal man that he begins his progress.”

In this early stage, the human being has no conscious awareness of any deeper purpose of life–it is survive, and acquire the objects of desire for satisfaction and enjoyment. “…he knows only its needs and its desires and he has necessarily no other guide to what is required of him than his own perception of need and his own stirrings and pointings of desire. To satisfy his physical and vital demands and necessities before all things else and, in the next rank, whatever emotional or mental cravings or imaginations or dynamic notions rise in him must be the first natural rule of his conduct.”

As man lives in social groupings, the needs and demands of that social group, family, tribe, society also impinge upon him and modify the pure working of desire and self-preservation. “The sole balancing or overpowering law that can modify or contradict this pressing natural claim is the demand put on him by the ideas, needs and desires of his family, community or tribe, the herd, the pack of which he is a member.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 181-182

Transcending Moral and Ethical Standards To Achieve a Limitless Divine Action

The human mentality, by its nature, tends to separate things into hard and fast divisions. It is no different in the realm of moral rules or ethical standards. The mind then wants to apply these rules universally and in a rigid manner with the concern that if we once let down our strict code, we will quickly slide into depravity, lawlessness and vice. We see this pattern repeated all around the world where the law is “black and white” or the doctrine of the religion or moral philosophy are “absolute”. It is clearly true that ethical and moral codes provide a real benefit in the culturing of the consciousness of humanity, and they serve a serious and positive purpose. It is also, however, quite true that any strictly construed rule or law that has no room for adaptation to new situations and circumstances, or that does not apply a deeper sense and understanding, at some point becomes an obstacle to further growth and development. It is just this type of conflict of moral codes and their application to new circumstances in life that bring about the moral dilemma, the conflict of duties, such as Arjuna was faced with in the Bhagavad Gita.

Sri Aurobindo provides a solution that accounts both for the temporary necessity of such rules and the need for growth and change: “But even on the human level, if we have light enough and flexibility enough to recognise that a standard of conduct may be temporary and yet necessary for its time and to observe it faithfully until it can be replaced by a better, then we suffer no such loss, but lose only the fanaticism of an imperfect and intolerant virtue. In its place we gain openness and a power of continual moral progression, charity, the capacity to enter into an understanding sympathy with all this world of struggling and stumbling creatures and by that charity a better right and a greater strength to help it upon its way.”

As we evolve towards the wider, higher and more power consciousness of the Divine standpoint, we find that the rules that govern the mental and vital life of humanity are too limited and too rigid and must be replaced by something that is more flexible, and which embodies the Divine consciousness more perfectly than mental rule-making: “But the divine manifestation cannot be bound by our little rules and fragile sanctities; for the consciousness behind it is too vast for these things. Once we have grasped this fact, disconcerting enough to the absolutism of our reason, we shall better be able to put in their right place in regard to each other the successive standards that govern the different stages in the growth of the individual and the collective march of mankind.”

As Sri Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita to “abandon all Dharmas”, the seeker eventually must be prepared to give up the mental scaffolding that has supported him during his advance through the stages of human growth and evolution in order to truly carry out the divine sacrifice and act according to the higher Will without limitations.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 180-181

The Relative Nature of Moral Laws and Ethical Standards of Conduct

For most people, the moral and ethical standards of the society within which they are raised are fixed and basic principles that govern action. For those who have had the opportunity to travel and meet people from different cultures, it becomes clear that these standards actually vary from one society to another. Similarly a review of the historical role of such standards over time will also reveal the changing nature of these rules even within one social order over time. Things that were immoral 50 years ago may be normal behavior in today’s world.

For the spiritual seeker, this question takes on an entire additional dimension. Whichever standards of conduct we follow based on the society’s moral and ethical code, they represent the framework developed by the mental consciousness attempting to bring about some kind of harmony and balance in the life of the individual within the society. These rules are an enormous benefit as humanity grows from a reactive animal consciousness to a mature human consciousness, but eventually they too must be overpassed in order to bring about the true freedom of action of the Spirit.

Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “To form higher and higher temporary standards as long as they are needed is to serve the Divine in his world march; to erect rigidly an absolute standard is to attempt the erection of a barrier against the eternal waters in their outflow. Once the nature-bound soul realises this truth, it is delivered from the duality of good and evil.”

Sri Aurobindo redefines “good” and “evil” within the context of this discussion: “For good is all that helps the individual and the world towards their divine fullness, and evil is all that retards or breaks up that increasing perfection. But since the perfection is progressive, evolutive in Time, good and evil are also shifting quantities and change from time to time their meaning and value. This thing which is evil now and in its present shape must be abandoned was once helpful and necessary to the general and individual progress. That other thing which we now regard as evil may well become in another form and arrangement an element in some future perfection.”

Going beyond even these distinctions, from the spiritual plane of vision, both what we consider to be “good” and that which we consider to be “evil” are part of the Divine manifestation: “…for we discover the purpose and divine utility of all these things that we call good and evil. Then we have to reject the falsehood in them and all that is distorted, ignorant and obscure in that which is called good no less than in that which is called evil. For we have then to accept only the true and the divine, but to make no other distinction in the eternal processes.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 180

The Individual and the Cosmic Being

Humanity has tended to the extremes when looking at the role and purpose of the individual being. Those who place their focus on the Eternal tend to treat the individual as an aberration, something to be dissolved in order to achieve Oneness with the Eternal. On the other hand, most of humanity has tended to accentuate the individual, and focus on individual fulfillment and achievement. Sri Aurobindo, as he recognizes that all is done by the Divine Being, does not at the same time try to eliminate the role of the individual; rather, he recognizes that the individual has been developed and formed so as to carry out the Divine evolutionary process in the stage of individualisation and growth of consciousness through and beyond the mental level.

“He is a centre only–a centre of differentiation of the one personal consciousness, a centre of determination of the one total movement; his personality reflects in a wave of persistent individuality the one universal Person, the Transcendent, the Eternal.”

The individual does not recognize fully the reality of the situation because of the limitations of the human mental consciousness: “In the Ignorance it is always a broken and distorted reflection because the crest of the wave which is our conscious waking self throws back only an imperfect and falsified similitude of the divine Spirit. All our opinions, standards, formations, principles are only attempts to represent in this broken, reflecting and distorting mirror something of the universal and progressive total action and its many-sided movement towards some ultimate self-revelation of the Divine. Our mind represents it as best it can with a narrow approximation that becomes less and less inadequate in proportion as its thought grows in wideness and light and power; but it is always an approximation and not even a true partial figure.”

Because the Divine Will is working to express and manifest the Unity of creation through the manifold forms and beings of the created universe, each aspect, each form, each individual carries within itself a secret sense of that Divine Power, Will and Knowledge. “Therefore there is in the cosmos, in the collectivity, in the individual, a rooted instinct or belief in its own perfectibility, a constant drive towards an ever increasing and more adequate and more harmonious self-development nearer to the secret truth of things. This effort is represented to the constructing mind of man by standards of knowledge, feeling, character, aesthesis and action,–rules, ideals, norms and laws that he essays to turn into universal Dharmas.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 179