Manifestation of the Subjective Life Requires Development of the Instruments of Action in the World

Traditionally in the practice of Yoga, the goal was set as the unification or the dissolution of the individual person into the Divine.  This implied an abandonment of the life of the world and a unified focus on the spiritual practice.  Similar direction, under other names and forms occurred in the anchorite traditions of Western religious seeking.  Sri Aurobindo redefined Yoga to continue beyond this unification of consciousness to then return upon the outer world and express the realisation in the life of the world.  For this purpose, the instruments, body, life and mind, needed to be prepared to receive the inspiration, upgraded, purified, and perfected so they would be able to express the higher consciousness and reflect it in a manner that would not distort it, or at least, only minimally.

As a corollary to this individual Yoga of “ascent” and “integration”, Sri Aurobindo describes the need and the issues involved in the self-finding process of nations and the eventual expression of that self-finding in the life of the society.  He continues with the example of Germany in the early 20th Century:

“It was the industry, the conscientious diligence, the fidelity to ideas, the honest and painstaking spirit of work for which the nation has long been famous.  A people may be highly gifted in the subjective capacities, and yet if it neglects to cultivate this lower side of our complex nature, it will fail to build that bridge between the idea and imagination and the world of facts, between the vision and the force, which makes realisation possible; its higher powers may become a joy and inspiration to the world, but it will never take possession of its own world until it has learned the humbler lesson.  In Germany the bridge was there, though it ran mostly through a dark tunnel with a gulf underneath; for there was no pure transmission from the subjective mind of the thinkers and singers to the objective mind of the scholars and organisers.  The misapplication by Treitschke of the teachings of Nietzsche to national and international uses which would have profoundly disgusted the philosopher himself, is an example of this obscure transmission.  But still a transmission was there.  For more than a half-century Germany turned a deep eye of introspection on herself and things and ideas in search of the truth of her own being and of the world, and for another half-century a patient eye of scientific research on the objective means for organising what she had or thought she had gained.  And something was done, something indeed powerful and enormous, but also in certain directions, not in all, misshapen and disconcerting.  Unfortunately those directions were precisely the very central lines on which to go wrong is to miss the goal.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 41-42


The Role of German Subjective Growth in the Rise of the Subjective Age of Nations

Germany during the early 20th Century was seen as the cause and precipitating factor behind the First World War, and the enormous destruction and suffering that resulted therefrom.  Sri Aurobindo, with a deeper and broader vision, was able to appreciate the underlying force that spurred Germany’s rise to self-awareness, and the deformations that caused this self-awareness to take a wrong turn into brute force and attempts to impose itself on others around the world.

It was the very power of Germany’s action that spurred other nations to gain their own forms of self-awareness and develop a strong core of resistance from that awareness.  We may see this as one of the by-products of the cataclysms that occurred.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The great determining force has been the example and the aggression of Germany; the example, because no other nation has so self-consciously, so methodically, so intelligently, and from the external point of view so successfully sought to find, to dynamise, to live itself and make the most of its power of being; its aggression, because the very nature and declared watchwords of the attack have tended to arouse a defensive self-consciousness in the assailed and forced them to perceive too that they themselves must seek consciously an answering strength in that same deeper source.  Germany was for the time the most remarkable present instance of a nation preparing for the subjective stage because it had, in the first place, a certain kind of vision — unfortunately intellectual rather than illuminated — and the courage to follow it — unfortunately again a vital and intellectual rather than a spiritual hardihood, — and, secondly, being master of its destinies, was able to order its own life so as to express its self-vision.  We must not be misled by appearances into thinking that the strength of Germany was created by Bismarck or directed by the Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Rather the appearance of Bismarck was in many respects a misfortune for the growing nation because his rude and powerful hand precipitated its subjectivity into form and action at too early a stage; a longer period of incubation might have produced results less disastrous to itself, if less violently stimulative to humanity.  The real source of this great subjective force which has been so much disfigured in its objective action, was not in Germany’s statesmen and soldiers — for the most part poor enough types of men — but came from her great philosophers, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, from her great thinker and poet Goethe, from her great musicians Beethoven and Wagner, and from all in the German soul and temperament which they represented.  A nation whose master achievement has lain almost entirely in the two spheres of philosophy and music, is clearly predestined to lead in the turn to subjectivism and to produce a profound result for good or evil on the beginnings of a subjective age.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 40-41

The Demand of the Time-Spirit in the Development of National Consciousness

Since the end of the First World War, humanity has witnessed the development of almost 200 independent nations, many of which were formerly held as colonies by various European powers and some of which were parts of larger entities but, due to separate cultural, language, religious or ethnic backgrounds, wanted to stand on their own and create a nation that expressed the unique characteristics of who that particular people was.  Some, such as the state of Israel, are obviously focused on living out their deepest sense of their uniqueness, but we can see similar forces at work in the Eastern European and Balkan States, the Baltic nations, and the creation of Bangla Desh.  Where this drive has not yet come to full fruition we nevertheless still see the impetus, such as the push of the Kurdish people to eventually set up their own independent state from parts of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.  Clearly there has been a force of Nature working to express a deeper sense of the uniqueness of each nation or national group, to fulfill a role of self-awareness and self-expression at the level of the nation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The conception to which Ireland and India have been the first to give a definite formula, ‘to be ourselves’, — so different from the impulse and ambition of dependent or unfortunate nations in the past which was rather to become like others, — is now more and more a generally accepted motive of national life.  It opens the way to great dangers and errors, but it is the essential condition for that which has now become the demand of the Time-Spirit on the human race, that it shall find subjectively, not only in the individual, but in the nation and in the unity of the human race itself, its deeper being, its inner law, its real self and live according to that and no longer by artificial standards.”

The dangers arise when a nation becomes not only fixated on realizing its true essential ‘self’, but when it tries to do so with a sense of superiority for itself and disdain for the unique expression of other nations.  “Especially, it tended to repeat the Teutonic lapse, preparing not only ‘to be oneself’, which is entirely right, but to live solely for and to oneself, which, if pushed beyond a certain point, becomes a disastrous error.  For it is necessary, if the subjective age of humanity is to produce its best fruits, that the nations should become conscious not only of their own but of each other’s souls and learn to respect, to help and to profit, not only economically and intellectually, but subjectively and spiritually, by each other.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 39-40

The Beginning Signs of a Change in Humanity to Develop a Self-Conscious National Entity

Sri Aurobindo has recognised the development of a subjective self-conscious awareness in various nations which were circumstanced, either through external weak development, or through external subjugation, to turn their view within.  He sees this, not as some kind of solitary and unusual development, but as a precursor of a general change taking place in humanity, which began in those areas most receptive and prepared for such a change to occur.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Therefore in nations so circumstanced this tendency of self-finding has been most powerful and has even created in some of them a new type of national movement, as in Ireland and India.  This and no other was the root-meaning of Swadeshism in Bengal and of the Irish movement in its earlier less purely political stages.  The emergence of Bengal as a sub-nation in India was throughout a strongly subjective movement and in its later development it became very consciously that.  The movement of 1905 in Bengal pursued quite a new conception of the nation not merely as a country, but a soul, a psychological, almost a spiritual being and, even when acting from economical and political motives, it sought to dynamise them by this subjective conception and to make them instruments of self-expression rather than objects in themselves.  We must not forget, however, that in the first stages these movements followed in their superficial thought the old motives of an objective and mostly political self-consciousness.  The East indeed is always more subjective than the West and we can see the subjective tinge even in its political movements whether in Persia, India or China, and even in the very imitative movement of the Japanese resurgence.  But it is only recently that this subjectivism has become self-conscious.  We may therefore conclude that the conscious and deliberate subjectivism of certain nations was only the sign and precursor of a general change in humanity and has been helped forward by local circumstances, but was not really dependent upon them or in any sense their product.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 38-39

The Rising Tendency for Acknowledgement and Seeking for the Nation-Soul

When we observe various countries around the world, including nations with a long history and those that are relatively newly minted, we can in certain cases begin to see that there are characteristics that make that nation unique, that express some deeper quality that permeates the atmosphere and life of that country, and that can be understood, not from outward forms of progress, but from some inner connection that binds the people of that country together in what may be called a spiritual unity of purpose.  Over time, people the world over begin to recognise the special qualities of certain nations that have stronger coherence and expression of these deeper forces and tendencies.  Even when suppressed by external powers, these countries tend to rebound and overcome the oppression and re-assert their natural qualities.  We may see this in the spiritual awakening of modern India and its overthrow of the British yoke in the last century, or in the awakening of China, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and the Scandanavian countries to follow their own unique path to inner and outer development.  In many cases they have chosen to avoid the pressure of the dominant economic powers or at least to modify those forces to also take into account inherent values they hold dear in their culture and in their being.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “But now we have, very remarkably, very swiftly coming to the surface this new psychological tendency of the communal consciousness.  Now first we hear of the soul of a nation and, what is more to the purpose, actually see nations feeling for their souls, trying to find them, seriously endeavouring to act from the new sense and make it consciously operative in the common life and action.  It is only natural that this tendency should have been, for the most part, most powerful in new nations or in those struggling to realise themselves in spite of political subjection or defeat.  For these need more to feel the difference between themselves and others so that they may assert and justi8fy their individuality as against the powerful superlife which tends to absorb or efface it.  And precisely because their objective life is feeble and it is difficult to affirm it by its own strength in the adverse circumstances, there is more chance of their seeking for their individuality and its force of self-assertion in that which is subjective and psychological or at least in that which has a subjective or a psychological significance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pg. 38

Objective and Subjective Views of Religious Institutions

When we look at religious institutions and their historical roots, in most cases, there was a charismatic founder who had spiritual experience and insight and tried to communicate that to those who interacted with him.  At this stage, the subjective, inner experience was alive and individuals were moved by that experience which the founder could and did communicate to them.  It was alive, it was powerful and it reoriented the way the founder and the early disciples looked at their lives and the world around them.  However, after the passing of the founder and this initial cadre of followers, there came a period when religious institutions, customs, habits and traditions formed, and the protection and development of the institution became an important factor.  Conventional forms developed and over time the living experience receded under the weight of customs.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “A Church is an organised religious community and religion, if anything in the world, ought to be subjective; for its very reason for existence — where it is not merely an ethical creed with a supernatural authority — is to find and realise the soul.  Yet religious history has been almost entirely, except in the time of the founders and their immediate successors, an insistence on things objective, rites, ceremonies, authority, church governments, dogmas, forms of belief.  Witness the whole external religious history of Europe, that strange sacrilegious tragi-comedy of discords, sanguinary disputations, ‘religious’ wars, persecutions, State Churches and all else that is the very negation of spiritual life.  It is only recently that men have begun seriously to consider what Christianity, Catholicism, Islam really mean and are in their soul, that is to say, in their very reality and essence.”

As a community, the religious institutions also have a similar type of group-soul as the example of the nation.  When the external phase of development comes to its close, a new subjective phase tries to either re-establish the inner sense and purpose of the Church, or else, the Church itself begins to lose its coherence as an institution as people deny the conventional ways and seek for direct spiritual experience in their lives.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 37-38

The Objective Viewpoint on the Subjective Aspect of the Nation

The tenor of modern civilisation has been characterised by the dominance of the intellect and the insistence on the external facts of life organised by the scientific method.  History has fixated on externalities; yet to the extent that it has begun to recognise that there is a deeper, subjective aspect to the development of the nation, it has continued to focus on aspects such as the mental character of a nation, or the temperament, folkways or customs that express the uniqueness of that nation, without taking the next step and going even deeper to the roots that bring about these characteristics on the surface, and the overall impulsion that makes all of this occur.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Certainly, there is always a vague sense of this subjective existence at work even on the surface of the communal mentality.  But so far as this vague sense becomes at all definite, it concerns itself mostly with details and unessentials, national idiosyncrasies, habits, prejudices, marked mental tendencies.  It is, so to speak, an objective sense of subjectivity.  As man has been accustomed to look on himself as a body and a life, the physical animal with a certain moral or immoral temperament, and the things of the mind have been regarded as a fine flower and attainment of the physical life rather than themselves anything essential or the sign of something essential, so and much more has the community regarded that small part of its subjective self of which it becomes aware.  It clings indeed always to its idiosyncrasies, habits, prejudices, but in a blind objective fashion, insisting on their most external aspect and not at all going behind them to that for which they stand, that which they try blindly to express.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pg. 37

Objective and Subjective View of the Historical Development of Societies

History has generally been viewed through the lens of an objective approach to societal development.  Historical theories abound with discussions of geography, economic forces, and the influence of factors such as access to transportation routes, developments of science and technology, interaction of various different cultures, religious forms and customs, climate, food and water access, and trade routes and hubs.  These external forces can be viewed as objective causes of historical development.  There is a role to be played, in the objective view, by specific individuals who represent or guide the transitions or provide some seminal push in a particular direction, and thus, for those who do not accept a purely objective mechanism, there is the part played by key individuals who appear at the “right place and the right time”.

Sri Aurobindo notes however that behind all this external causation lies the subjective force that drives humanity forward, that drives the development of society, and that is the ultimate and real cause of evolutionary progress of society:  “…political and economic motives have everywhere predominated on the surface and history has been a record of their operations and influence.  The one subjective and psychological force consciously admitted and with difficulty deniable has been that of the individual.  This predominance is so great that most modern historians and some political thinkers have concluded that objective necessities are by law of Nature the only really determining forces, all else is result or superficial accidents of these forces.  Scientific history has been conceived as if it must be a record and appreciation of the environmental motives of political action, of the play of economic forces and developments and the course of institutional evolution.  The few who still valued the psychological element have kept their eye fixed on individuals and are not far from conceiving of history as a mass of biographies.  The truer and more comprehensive science of the future will see that these conditions only apply to the imperfectly self-conscious period of national development.  Even then there was always a greater subjective force working behind individuals, policies, economic movements and the change of institutions; but it worked for the most part subconsciously, more as a subliminal self than as a conscious mind.  It is when this subconscious power of the group-soul comes to the surface that nations begin to enter into possession of their subjective selves; they set about getting, however vaguely or imperfectly, at their souls.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 36-37

First Steps in the Development of the Group-Soul of a Society

We do not ordinarily think about the society as having its own soul.  We attribute the soul to an individual.  The ancient sages in India spoke of the soul as taking on a mental, vital and physical body, and changing them as it undergoes the process of death and rebirth.  The soul was eternal, the body and the vital-mental complex that used it were transitory and subject to change.  Sri Aurobindo advises that we can see a similar relationship of a group-soul to the body-formation of a society.  The primary difference is that while the human body is constructed of an aggregation of subconscious or unconscious constituent parts, the group-soul consists of an aggregation of conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious individuals, which makes the process of the soul directing the “body” much more difficult to organise and manage in the case of the society versus the individual.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…the group-soul is much more complex because it has a great number of partly self-conscious mental individuals for the constituents of its physical being instead of an association of merely vital subconscious cells.  At first, for this very reason, it seems more crude, primitive and artificial in the forms it takes; for it has a more difficult task before it, it needs a longer time to find itself, it is more fluid and less easily organic.  When it does succeed in getting out of the stage of vaguely conscious self-formation, its first definite self-consciousness is objective much more than subjective.  And so far as it is subjective, it is apt to be superficial or loose and vague.  This objectiveness comes out very strongly in the ordinary emotional conception of the nation which centres round its geographical, its most outward and material aspect, the passion for the land in which we dwell, the land of our fathers, the land of our birth, country, patria, vaterland, janma-bhumi.  When we realise that the land is only the shell of the body, though a very living shell indeed and potent in its influences on the nation, when we begin to feel that its more real body is the men and women who compose the nation-unit, a body every changing, yet always the same like that of the individual man, we are on the way to a truly subjective communal consciousness.  For then we have some chance of realising that even the physical being of the society is a subjective power, not a mere objective existence.  Much more is it in its inner self a great corporate soul with all the possibilities and dangers of the soul-life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 35-36

The Primal Law of Self-Development for the Individual and the Society

Those who recognize that there is a purpose behind our existence acknowledge that the individual is the vehicle of growth and development, and that it is the individual who undertakes the self-finding and self-fulfillment process, in whichever form it winds up taking.  Some look to intellectual development, some to emotional development, others to artistic or musical or scientific development, some undertake a religious or a spiritual quest.  They recognise that even those individuals who seem not to accept that there is any purpose to life will eventually make efforts for self-development in some form.

Sri Aurobindo acknowledges this individual seeking as a primal law of self-development; yet he goes a step farther by his recognition that it is not just the individual but also the society that undergoes this developmental process.  He identifies a “nation-soul” representative of a particular society which develops means to express itself, and which can be recognised and understood.

“The primal law and purpose of the individual life is to seek its own self-development.  Consciously or half-consciously or with an obscure unconscious groping it strives always and rightly strives at self-formulation, — to find itself, to discover within itself the law and power of its own being and to fulfil it.  This aim in it is fundamental, right, inevitable because, even after all qualifications have been made and caveats entered, the individual is not merely the ephemeral physical creature, a form of mind an body that aggregates and dissolves, but a being, a living power of the eternal Truth, a self-manifesting spirit.”

“In the same way the primal law and purpose of a society, community or nation is to seek its own self-fulfilment; it strives rightly to find itself, to become aware within itself of the law and power of its own being and to fulfil it as perfectly as possible, to realise all its potentialities, to live its own self-revealing life.  The reason is the same; for this too is a being, a living power of the eternal Truth, a self-manifestation of the cosmic Spirit, and it is there to express and fulfil in its own way and to the degree of its capacities the special truth and power and meaning of the cosmic Spirit that is within it.  The nation or society, like the individual, has a body, an organic life, a moral and aesthetic temperament, a developing mind and a soul behind all these signs and powers for the sake of which they exist.  One may say even that, like the individual, it essentially is a soul rather than has one; it is a group-soul that, once having attained to a separate distinctness, must become more and more self-conscious and find itself more and more fully as it develops its corporate action and mentality and its organic self-expressive life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pg. 35