The Role of Monarchy in the Development of the Nation Unit

The development of the nation-unit essentially requires a strong centralized governing administration that draws together the people and organizes to meet the life-needs of the people and acts as a focal point for the development of the necessary psychological unity.  Historically, this transition has been accomplished primarily by the development of a strong, central leadership around a king or monarch, under a variety of names.  Sri Aurobindo illustrates this trend with several examples:

“…the historical importance of a powerful kingship in the evolution of the nation-type, as it actually developed in mediaeval times, cannot be exaggerated.  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. …  And even in modern times, the almost mediaeval 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. … In the new formation of Japan into a nation of the modern type the Mikado played a similar role; the instinct of the renovators brought him out of his helpless seclusion to meet this inner need.  The attempt of a brief dictatorship in revolutionary China to convert itself into a new national monarchy may be attributed quite as much to the same feeling in a practical mind as to mere personal ambition.  It is a sense of this great role played by the kingship in centralising and shaping national life at the most critical stage in its growth which explains the tendency common in the East and not altogether absent from the history of the West to invest it with 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.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pp. 108-110


The Need for a Predominant Secular or Combined Secular-Religious Leadership to Achieve a Strong National Unit

In his Thoughts and Aphorisms, Sri Aurobindo observes that a tool or method necessary at one stage of progress can become an obstruction at the next stage.  In a similar way, he describes the role that the strict hierarchical organisation of societal tasks plays in the first stage of development of the psychological unity of a societal aggregate, while acknowledging that the second stage of development, to achieve the nation-unit, must modify this strict hierarchy in order to achieve its goal.

“In other words, the institution of a fixed social hierarchy, while it seems to have been a necessary stage for the first tendencies of national formation, needed to modify itself and prepare its own dissolution if the later stages were to be rendered possible.  An instrument good for a certain work and set of conditions, if it is still retained when other work has to be done and conditions change, becomes necessarily an obstacle.  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.”

The focus and goals of the religious class are not generally focused on the he political and administrative needs of the state and its citizens; thus, until a clearly secular leadership emerges, the nation-unit is unable to fully form itself.  In the example provided by India, “It is only now after the advent of European civilisation when the Brahmin caste has not only lost the best part of its exclusive hold on the national life but has largely secularised itself, that political and secular considerations have come into the forefront, a pervading political self-consciousness has been awakened and the organised unity of the nation, as distinct from a spiritual and cultural oneness, made possible in fact and not only as an unshaped subconscious tendency.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pp. 107-108

Secular or Religious Control Lead to Varying Outcomes for Development of Nation-State

Adherents of various religions have attempted, over time, to gain control of and dominate the machinery of the society.  Several major issues arise when this occurs, and they can impede the development of the nation-state as a consistent and functioning entity with a psychological unity.  By its very nature, religions do not hold as their primary goal or duty the management of the resources of the state and the financial and quality of life needs of the citizens.  Additionally, where a heterogeneous society exists, certain religions are effectively disenfranchised , or at least somewhat biased against, when one dominant religion attempts to control the secular functions.  It was the dominance of secular governance which aided Europe in developing strong nation-state units.   This may mean entire separation of Church and State, predominant control by a secular over a sacerdotal administration or a society where the two functions were melded effectively so that a balance prevailed.

Sri Aurobindo explores this issue:  “The struggle between the Church and the monarchical State is one of the most important and vital features of the history of Europe.  Had that conflict ended in an opposite result, the whole future of humanity would have been in jeopardy.  As it was, the Church was obliged to renounce its claim to independence and dominance over the temporal power.”

Sri Aurobindo concludes that there is something of a natural law governing the development of the nation-state:  “…the passionate determination of the liberated Italian people to establish its King in Rome was really a symbol of the law that a self-conscious and politically organised nation can have only one supreme and central authority admitted in its midst and that must be the secular power.  The nation which has reached or is reaching this stage must either separate the religious and spiritual claim from its common secular and political life by individualising religion or else it must unite the two by the alliance of the State and the Church to uphold the single authority of the temporal head or combine the spiritual and temporal headship in one authority as was done in Japan and China and in England of the Reformation.  Even in India the people which first developed some national self-consciousness not of a predominantly spiritual character were the Rajputs, especially of Mewar, to whom the Raja was in every way the head of society and of the nation; and 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.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pp. 106-107

Historical Examples and Differing Results in the Development of the Nation-Unit

One can see substantial similarities between the social organisation of feudal Europe and that of medieval India.  In each case there were essentially four strata of societal function and a hierarchical management of society.  With respect to the eventual development of a nation-state, however, the results were different.  Sri Aurobindo explains a major difference was that feudal Europe developed with the supremacy of the political or ruling class into a secular society, with its aims and focuses on managing the needs and organisation of the members of that secular society, while in India the religious leadership moved to the fore and focused, not on the type of secular aims which would give rise to a strong, central government and organisation of society, but on their spiritual and religious goals.  Thus, Europe was able to develop the secular nation-state, while India remained divided into numerous kingdoms and provinces and was unable to unify into a cohesive whole.  A similar dynamic with strong central management and rule led to the unification seen in China and Japan, as in Europe.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates:  “The different result in India, apart from other causes, was due to the different evolution of the social order.  Elsewhere that evolution turned in the direction of a secular organisation and headship; it created with 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.  In mediaeval India, on the contrary, it 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.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pp. 105-106

The Historical Evolution of a Social Hierarchy

The organisation of a society capable of managing the complexity of a large number of people and meeting their manifold needs and life-requirements, brings about certain forms which have tended to replicate themselves in diverse societies, both Western and Eastern.  Any form of societal organisation involves a certain amount of required uniformity and certainty to ensure all the needs are being met.   Such foundations have been developed using relatively fixed systems of social hierarchy, so that the society could count on certain functions being carried out by certain people, and there was a process for continuity of those functions into the future.  At the same time, individuals were certain about their place and role in the society.  It is not our purpose here to examine the specific forms or their inherent strengths or weaknesses; rather, we are looking at the historical basis of the development of such hierarchies and the interplay with the development of the nation-unit of societal development.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “But it is noticeable that both in Europe and Asia there was a common tendency, which we cannot trace to any close interchange of ideas and must therefore attribute to the operation of the same natural cause and necessity, 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 spirit, form and equipoise worked out were very different in different parts of the world according to the bent of the community and its circumstances, but the initial principle was almost identical.  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.”

While different models evolved, particularly in the Islamic world, it must be noted that they did not tend to lead to strong independent nation-units as in those places which created such a social hierarchy.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pp. 104-105

Basic Requirements for the External Method of Nation-Building

An internal process of nation-building would start from the development of a psychological unity and from that point, work to build an outer societal form that based itself on that unity.  An external process, on the other hand, starts with the physical form and works to develop a psychological unity over time through shared interactions in the community, mutual support and interrelationships, and generally developed customs, habits, ideas and cultural norms.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “The external method tries always to mould the psychological condition of men into changed forms and habits under the pressure of circumstances and institutions rather than by the direct creation of a new psychological condition which would, on the contrary, develop freely and flexibly its own appropriate and serviceable social forms.  In such a process there must be in the nature of things, first, some kind of looser yet sufficiently compelling order of society and common type of civilisation to serve as a framework or scaffolding within which the new edifice shall arise.  Next, there must come naturally a period of stringent organisation directed towards unity and centrality of control and perhaps a general levelling and uniformity under that central direction.  Last, if the new organism is not to fossilise and stereotype its life, if it is to be still a living and vigorous creation of Nature, there must come a period of free internal development as soon as the formation is assured and unity has become a mental and vital habit.  This freer internal activity assured in its heart and at its basis by the formed needs, ideas and instincts of the community will no longer bring with it the peril of disorder, disruption or arrest of the secure growth and formation of the organism.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 13, The Formation of the Nation-Unit — The Three Stages, pg. 104

Developing the Elements of a Stable Larger Societal Form

The history of the last several thousand years of human civilisation displays a number of different experiments in human societal groupings.  The general trend points towards larger and more complex organisation; however, the experiments in large imperial forms have generally failed as they suppressed the natural vitality and creative energy of the smaller forms in order to achieve their control over the disparate elements within the empire.  We see Nature patiently testing, discarding, rearranging and building within this historical overview.  Recent directions point to a more balanced approach that allows the larger formations to develop, while maintaining the unique character and dynamic force of the smaller sub-entities.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “The third stage of national life enjoys the advantages of unity and sufficient uniformity created by the second and is able to safely utilise anew the possibilities of regional and city-life saved from entire destruction by the first.  By these gradations of national progress, it has been made increasingly possible for our modern times to envisage, if and where it is willed or needed, the idea of a federated nation or federal empire based securely upon a fundamental and well-realised psychological unity: this indeed was already achieved in a simple type in Germany and in America.  Also we can move now safely, if we will, towards a partial decentralisation through subordinate governments, communes and provincial cities which may help to cure the malady of an excessive metropolitan absorption of the best national energies and facilitate their free circulation through many centres and plexuses.  At the same time, we contemplate the organised use of a State intelligently representative of the whole conscious, active, vitalised nation as a means for the perfection of the life of the individual and the community.  This is the point which the development of the nation-aggregate has reached at the moment when we are again confronted either, according to future trends, with the wider problem of the imperial aggregate or the still vaster problems created by the growing cultural unity and commercial and political interdependence of all mankind.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 102-103

Three Stages in the European Cycle of Nation Building

The development of the ancient empires, which subordinated the smaller clans, villages and city-states that preceded them, had some inherent weaknesses which led to their eventual dissolution.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, the drive towards larger groupings of humanity did not cease, but rather took a new turn in Europe which proceeded by three successive stages and which worked to solidify the progress without destroying the underlying vitality of the constituent parts.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process:  “The first stage progressed through a long balancing of centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in which the feudal system provided a principle of order and of a loose but still organic unity.  The second was a movement of unification and increasing uniformity in which certain features of the ancient imperial system of Rome were repeated, but with a less crushing force and exhausting tendency.  It was marked first by the creation of a metropolitan centre which began to draw to it, like Rome, the best life-energies of all the other parts.  A second feature was the growth of an absolute sovereign authority whose function was to impose a legal, administrative, political and linguistic uniformity and centralisation on the national life.  A third sign of this movement was the establishment of a governing spiritual head and body which served to impose a similar uniformity of religious thought and intellectual education and opinion.  This unifying pressure too far pursued might have ended disastrously like the Roman but for a third stage of revolt and diffusion which broke or subordinated these instruments, feudalism, monarchy, Church authority as soon as their work had been done and substituted a new movement directed towards the diffusion of the national life through a strong and well-organised political, legal, social and cultural freedom and equality.  Its trend has been to endeavour that as in the ancient city, so in the modern nation, all classes and all individuals should enjoy the benefits and participate in the free energy of the released national existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 101-102

Examples of the Development of Nation-Units in Europe

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, Europe was free to develop according to different patterns, based on local conditions.  Those parts of Europe that had been under Roman control were to a great degree cured of local divisions that would prevent unification, and thus, nation-states were able to form that encompassed people of a common language or cultural background for the most part.  There were however also sections of Europe that had not been under imperial control, and these had to work out their development along somewhat different lines.  Sri Aurobindo reviews several of these paths to nation-state status following the fall of Rome:

“The old clan-nation perished, except in countries like Ireland and Northern and Western Scotland which had not undergone the Roman pressure, and there it was as fatal to unification as the city state in Italy; it prevented Ireland from evolving an organised unity and the Highland Celts from amalgamating with the Anglo-Celtic Scotch nation until the yoke of England passed over them and did what the Roman rule would have done if it had not been stayed in its expansion by the Grampians and the Irish seas.  In the rest of Western Europe, the work done by the Roman rule was so sound that even the domination of the Western countries by the tribal nations of Germany failed to revive the old strongly marked and obstinately separative clan-nation.  It created in its stead the regional kingdoms of Germany and the feudal and provincial divisions of France and Spain; but it was only in Germany, which like Ireland and the Scotch highlands had not endured the Roman yoke, that this regional life proved a serious obstacle to unification.”

France eventually united while preserving the rich cultural variations of the regions.  “But in England the necessary variation and richness of the ultimate organism was otherwise provided for by the great difference of the races that formed the new nation and by the persistence of Wales, Ireland and Scotland as separate cultural units with a subordinate self-consciousness of their own in the larger unity.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pp. 100-101

The Revival of the City-State in Europe After the Fall of the Roman Empire

Sri Aurobindo traces the revival of the city-state formation in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.  This model, as may be recalled from the ancient Greek form, was a dynamic force for interaction and individual growth.  At the same time, other than in Italy, the regional unification into “national” units also began to take shape.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  Other than in Italy, “…the city-unit revived only in the shape of the free or half-free municipalities of mediaeval France, Flanders and Germany; and these were at no time an obstacle to unification, but rather helped to form a subconscious basis for it and in the meanwhile to prevent by rich impulses and free movement of thought and art the mediaeval tendency to intellectual uniformity, stagnation and obscuration.”

Italy was a different case, however.  The nation-unit was set back by the independence and separation of the city-states.  “We may ascribe its strong resuscitation in Italy to two circumstances, first, to the premature Roman oppression of the ancient free city-life of Italy before it had realised its full potentialities and, secondly, to its survival in seed both by the prolonged civil life of Rome itself and by the persistence in the Italian municipia of a sense of separate life, oppressed but never quite ground out of existence as was the separate clan-life of Gaul and Spain or the separate city-life of Greece.  Thus psychologically the Italian city state neither died satisfied  and fulfilled nor was broken up beyond recall; it revived in new incarnations.  And this revival was disastrous to the nation-life of italy, though an incalculable boon and advantage to the culture and civilisation of the world; for as the city-life of Greece had originally created, so the city-life of Italy recovered, renewed and gave in a new form to our modern times the art, literature, thought and science of the Graeco-Roman world.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 12, The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building–The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building, pg. 100