Bigger Societal Institutions for Human Unity Are Not Necessarily Better

The first thought that tends to arise when the question of human unity comes about is that there would be some kind of world government under which all people and countries would be administered, under common laws and controls.  This is the mental extrapolation from local to state, from state to regional, from regional to national and from national to supra-national, or imperial forms that have arisen in the past in one way or another.  We therefore believe that the expansion to a larger aggregation of humanity under a larger governmental form must be the only, and therefore the obvious, way for human unity to proceed.  We thus look at the various imperial dynasties that have arisen over time, and try to see what the implications would be.  We extrapolate from the empire of Alexander the Great, to the Roman Empire, to the Napoleonic empire, the British Empire, and the rise of the Third Reich, as well as the various imperial dynasties of ancient China or India, or the imperial reach of conquerors such as Genghis Khan.   Writers such as Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, or George Orwell in his 1984 have looked at the issue of a centralised world government (or regional governments) and provided us their dystopian view of such an event.

This historical background, and the future-oriented view of these writers, leads us to ask the question whether “bigger” is necessarily “better”, and thus, whether human unity should even take place under this model.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us:  “It must be remembered that a greater social or political unity is not necessarily a boon in itself; it is only worth pursuing in so far as it provides a means and a framework for a better, richer, more happy and puissant individual and collective life.  But hitherto the experience of mankind has not favoured the view that huge aggregations, closely united and strictly organised, are favourable to a rich and puissant human life.  It would seem rather that collective life is more at ease with itself, more genial, varied, fruitful when it can concentrate itself in small spaces and simpler organisms.”

“If we consider the past of humanity so far as it is known to us, we find that the interesting periods of human life, the scenes in which it has been most richly lived and has left behind it the most precious fruits, were precisely those ages and countries in which humanity was able to organise itself in little independent centres acting intimately upon each other but not fused into a single unity.  Modern Europe owes two-thirds of its civilisation to three such supreme moments of human history, the religious life of the congeries of tribes which called itself Israel and, subsequently, of the little nation of the Jews, the many-sided life of the small Greek city states, the similar, though more restricted artistic and intellectual life of mediaeval Italy.  Nor was any age in Asia so rich in energy, so well worth living in, so productive of the best and most enduring fruits as that heroic period of India when she was divided into small kingdoms, many of them no larger than a modern district.”

There are downsides to larger governmental organisations that include regimentation and bureaucratic growth, top-down rule-making and restriction of freedom and diversity at the individual and local level that have created issues for those larger institutions that we have seen in the past.  This is not to imply that only smaller functional units can be successful, however.  It is essential to look at the issues from all sides to come to a balanced conclusion and positive way forward.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pp. 11-12

Is Humanity Ready for Human Unity

While the material circumstances may create a need and pressure for human unity, this external impetus may not find a willing receptivity in the heart and mind of mankind, or it may not lead to a true, long-term solution.  The physical demands of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, and the impact of communication and transportation technology to make the entire world accessible and an immediate presence for people everywhere, certainly provide the necessary impetus in a way that has not been seen in the historical past.  Yet we find that humanity is, to a great degree, acting from older instincts and habits of competition and aggression, rather than overcoming superficial differences to achieve the unified effort needed to effectuate true human unity and thereby address the crises of the present time.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “But this very commodity of the material circumstances may bring about the failure of the ideal; for when material circumstances favour a great change, but the heart and mind of the race are not really ready–especially the heart–failure may be predicted, unless indeed men are wise in time and accept the inner change along with the external readjustment.  But at present the human intellect has been so much mechanised by physical Science that it is likely to attempt the revolution it is beginning to envisage principally or solely through mechanical means, through social and political adjustments.  Now it is not by social and political devices, or at any rate not by thee chiefly or only, that the unity of the human race can be enduringly or fruitfully accomplished.”

This is not to say that the aspiration and the attempt should be written off in advance: it is the process of Nature to create circumstances to further an advance, to gauge how far it can succeed and what limits there are to the success at that time, and then to circle back again later when circumstances arise again, and use the past failure as the stepping-stone to a future successful result.  Even our failures teach us something along the way, and make a more comprehensive result possible at the right time in the future.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pg. 11

The Sprouting of an Ideal and Its Growth and Development

If we reflect on how humanity develops various ideals, and how these ideals go about getting to be attempted, and then view the results, it becomes possible to recognize a process which Nature, the executive power of the Divine in manifestation, uses to evolve new goals and focus for humanity.  In one of his thoughts and aphorisms, Sri Aurobindo implies that a Yogi dwelling in a cave in the Himalayas dreamed of liberty and subsequently the French Revolution eventually occurred.  This is not so much to imply direct causality, but to point more toward the impulsion of Nature, picked up by the subtle awareness of the Yogi, and eventually making itself known and felt in the wider field of human experience.

In the general operations of Nature, a seed is sown, and if the environment is appropriate, the seed can sprout, take root and grow.  Similarly with ideals within humanity, the seed of an idea is sown, and if humanity is ready to receive it, even to some degree, it begins to take root and grow and reach out to expand its influence.  It is met by resistance in most cases for the established status quo, or by those who have neither the mind nor the inclination to do something different than they have done in the past,  Some of these eventually gain enough stability to become rooted in the community of mankind, and others flower for a time and fade.

With this general background, it is possible to look at the ideal of human unity and its status and opportunities, as described by Sri Aurobindo:  “Today, the ideal of human unity is more or less vaguely making its way to the front of our consciousness.  The emergence of an ideal in human thought is always the sign of an intention in Nature, but not always of an intention to accomplish; sometimes it indicates only an attempt which is predestined to temporary failure.  For nature is slow and patient in her methods.  She takes up ideas and half carries them out, then drops them by the wayside to resume them in some future era with a better combination.  She tempts humanity, her thinking instrument, and tests how far it is ready for the harmony she has imagined; she allows and incites man to attempt and fail, so that he may learn and succeed better another time.  Still the ideal, having once made its way to the front of thought, must certainly be attempted, and this ideal of human unity is likely to figure largely among the determining forces of the future; for the intellectual and material circumstances of the age have prepared and almost impose it, especially the scientific discoveries which have made our earth so small that its vasted kingdoms seem now no more than the provinces of a single country.”

One method Nature uses is to put before humanity a threat to survival that forces new thoughts and directions upon us.  Global climate change, overuse of resources, the accumulation of waste materials that are overwhelming the land, air and oceans, and the increasing threats of utter destruction from the weaponry that has been developed in the last 100 years, all represent an impetus towards development of human unity as a way to ensure survival of the human race.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pg. 10

The Necessity of a Deeper Knowledge of the Development of Human Society

We try to understand the organization and meaning of human social interactions, institutions and systems of governance or economics through an analysis of the salient facts of the past or present that appear to our surface vision.  We pick out leaders, heroes, warriors, religious founders, great scientists or philosophers and attempt to judge their impact on the development of our society and its values, actions and limitations.  We categorize movements of thought and action within the framework of a series of organized religions or a philosophy of economy or governance, which appear under the various “ism’s” such as capitalism, communism, socialism, imperialism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, etc.  We focus on events such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution, and on the actions of individuals such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Caesar, etc.

We amass a dizzying amount of detail, and use our ability to memorize these facts and the stories that accompany them, as evidence of our “understanding” of human history and the development of our civilisation.

We become attached to any of these systems, ideas or philosophical or religious directions and use them to divide us, one from another, and create barriers.  Eventually we begin to learn that each of these directions has its positive aspects and its negative aspects, and the solution does not seem to lie solely within the framework of any of these.  Further, we learn that human life and development does not fit neatly into the patterns espoused in the ideal forms of these various structures.

Sri Aurobindo therefore concludes that all of these lines of understanding essentially are based on the surfaces of life and do not reach down into the depths or up to the heights where the powers that throw up all these variations actually reside and guide the development of human understanding:  “…all this happens because our whole thought and action with regard to our collective life is shallow and empirical; it does not seek for, it does not base itself on a firm, profound and complete knowledge.  The moral is not the vanity of human life, of its ardours and enthusiasms and of the ideals it pursues, but the necessity of a wiser, larger, more patient search after its true law and aim.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pp. 9-10

The Need to View and Understand the Deeper Currents of Development at Work in the Individual and the Society

Observation of the wave-action on the surface of an ocean does not show us the true nature of ocean in its depths.  We cannot see the pressures of the deep, the innumerable life-forms, the “food chain” nor the world-straddling currents that take place through the interaction of warmer and cooler ocean areas.  We also cannot see, from that superficial view, the impact of warming or cooling of the ocean has on the climate in the air, nor the effect on the land.

Similarly, if we observe the day to day flurry of activity on the surfaces of our human existence, the daily issues, concerns, and conflicts in society which occupy so much of our attention, we are unable to plumb the depths of the longer term currents and significance of the development of human civilisation and of the individuals living within that civilisation.

And yet, it is these deeper movements which actually determine the true direction, scope, intensity and speed of human development, just as it is the depths of the ocean that present the true nature of the ocean and its importance for global action in the material world.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…the knowledge of life’s profundities, its potent secrets, its great, hidden, all-determining laws is exceedingly difficult to us.  We have found no plummet that can fathom these depths; they seem to us a vague, indeterminate movement, a profound obscurity from which the mind recoils willingly to play with the fret and foam and facile radiances of the surface.  Yet it is these depths and their unseen forces that we ought to know if we would understand existence; on the surface we get only Nature’s secondary rules and practice bye-laws which help us to tide over the difficulties of the moment and to organise empirically without understanding them her continual transitions.”

In the West, the students of sociology attempt to find out trends and directions through statistical analysis of factual data.  This is the mind’s methodology and while it points towards the need of the deeper understanding that Sri Aurobindo discusses, it is still limited by the framework of the mental consciousness and its restricted view.  Sociology therefore falls short, as it focuses its view primarily on the surface factual data and simply organises and filters that data to come up with an understanding of the developments taking place in any society.  What is missing here is an understanding of the deeper currents that throw up to the surface these various directions and trends, and the deeper import of what is systematically trying to manifest through human individuals and their societies.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 1, The Turn towards Unity: Its Necessity and Dangers, pg. 9

Prefatory Remarks Regarding the Treatise on The Ideal of Human Unity

The period during which the main text of The Ideal of Human Unity was written, spanning the period of the First World War, from 1915 through 1918, was a time of great and momentous change in the socio-political landscape of the world.  As a result, there is discussion, particularly in the earlier chapters, which refers to institutions and events which were superceded along the way and no longer were relevant.  It is important therefore to separate the transitory and impermanent details from the deeper principles at work in order to understand the significance of the issues and their probable lines of development and resolution.

There are overarching themes in the movement towards the political and economic unity of humanity, and these themes, identified and described by Sri Aurobindo, remain active even today.  The founding of the League of Nations, precursor to today’s United nations, was one of the events that took place in the latter period covered by this text.  The potential for collapse of the League of Nations and the reasons for it, were described by Sri Aurobindo as follows:  “The two great difficulties which attend the incipience of this first stage of loose world-union will still be, first, the difficulty of bringing into one system the few great Empires remaining, few but immensely increased in power, influence and the extent of their responsibilities, and the greatly increased swarm of free nations which the force of events or the Power guiding them rather than the will of nations and Governments has brought into being, and the approaching struggle between Labour and Capitalism.  The former is only a difficulty and embarrassment, though it may become serious if it turns into a conflict between the imperialistic and nationalistic ideas or reproduces in the international scheme the strife of the old oligarchic and democratic tendencies in a new form, a question between control of the world-system by the will and influence of a few powerful imperial States and the free and equal control by all, small nations and great, European and American and Asiatic peoples.  The second is a danger which may even lead to disintegration of this first attempt at unification, especially if, as seems to be the tendency, the League undertakes the policing of the world against the forces of extreme revolutionary socialism.  On the other hand, the conflict may accelerate, whatever its result, the necessity and actuality of a more close and rigorous system, the incipience at least of the second stage of unification.”

Sri Aurobindo identifies the major underlying themes he expounds, on the advance of humanity to a wider world-union:  “…the inevitability of the unification of the life of humanity as a result of those imperative natural forces which lead always to the creation of larger and larger human aggregates, the choice of the principles which may be followed in the process, the need for preserving and bringing to fullness the principle of individual and group freedom within the human unity, and the insufficiency of formal unity without a growth of the religion of humanity which can alone make it a great psychological advance in the spiritual evolution of the race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Preface, pp. 3-4

Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s The Ideal of Human Unity

The Ideal of Human Unity was written by Sri Aurobindo serially during the period from 1915 through 1918, essentially while the world was struggling with the “war to end all wars”, World War I.  Interestingly, he undertook to update the text in the 1930’s during the run up to World War II, and then put a brief update and postscript on it after the conclusion of the second World War.  This subject was therefore of continual focus and interest for Sri Aurobindo.

Some may wonder what relationship the social and political framework of human civilisation has to do with the practice of Yoga.  Sri Aurobindo recognized and described in The Life Divine an “omnipresent reality” that incorporated the individual, the universal and the transcendent aspects of existence.  All existence represents the manifestation of the Divine Will through Time, Space and Circumstance, and thus, the principle of Oneness holds that the individual is not separate from the universal and the universal is not separate from the transcendent.

In The Synthesis of Yoga he described the universal “Yoga of Nature” that systematically evolves levels of consciousness from the involved inconscient of Matter to the highest supramental realms of total awareness of the Divine knowledge and will.  He also described the interchange and interaction between the universal and the individual and the role of each.  The universal play of forces has a constant impact on the spiritual development of any individual and thus, cannot be dismissed.

It is within this general context that the question of human unity arises.  The boundaries set up by the physical manifestation, the aggressive self-aggrandisement of the vital consciousness, and the fragmented view of the mental level ensure that there will be a struggle and disharmony until such time as an integrated, higher perspective can put everything into a coherent whole of mutual interchange.  For the practitioner of Yoga, therefore, working on the inner self-development, at a certain stage, requires the seeker to address the larger questions of harmony and oneness.

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo indicates that “…all problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony.  They arise from the perception of an unsolved discord and the instinct of an undiscovered agreement or unity.”  and he goes on to state “The greater the apparent disorder of the materials offered or the apparent disparateness, even to irreconcilable opposition, of the elements that have to be utilised, the stronger is the spur, and it drives towards a more subtle and puissant order than can normally be the result of a less difficult endeavour.”  (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Chapter 1, pg. 5)

We can see all around us the difficulty of achieving human unity and resolving the apparent contradictions of physical, vital and mental demands and desires.  It may also be seen that the larger concerns of all humanity, as one universal being, such as the integrity of the environment that sustains us, puts added pressure on our attempt to achieve human unity.

It is with this background that we take up the subject of human unity in the systematic way that Sri Aurobindo has viewed it.  It is not isolated from the practice of Yoga, but an essential element of the yogic process.

All chapter numbers and titles are from Sri Aurobindo’s The Ideal of Human Unity.  All individual post titles are independently developed for these posts.  Page numbers referenced are from the USA editions of Sri Aurobindo’s major writings, published by Lotus Press.



Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity