About sriaurobindostudies

studying the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother since 1971, this blog is meant to systematically review the writings of Sri Aurobindo.

The Importance of the Distinction Between Real and Political Unity

Sri Aurobindo poses the question as to the importance of distinguishing real internal unity of a societal formation from one that is purely based on some external form cobbled together either for a temporary economic or political convenience, or through the exercise of some kind of force.  The answer lies in the internal coherence and consistency found in the real unity, which tends to keep the people joined together, as opposed to the political unity with little commonality among the disparate parts, which will tend to disintegrate or drift apart when the force that is acting to hold it together weakens.

We can see a similar reality in the world of science and chemistry, with strong atomic bonds holding together while weak atomic bonds are subject to being broken apart, and the elements dispersed or joined elsewhere.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  The distinction “…must be made because it is of the greatest utility to a true and profound political science and involves the most important consequences.  When an empire like Austria, a non-national empire, is broken to pieces, it perishes for good; there is no innate tendency to recover the outward unity, because there is no real inner oneness; there is only a politically manufactured aggregate.  On the other hand, a real national unity broken up by circumstances will always preserve a tendency to recover and reassert its oneness.  The Greek Empire has gone the way of all empires, but the Greek nation, after many centuries of political non-existence, again possesses its separate body, because it has preserved its separate ego and therefore really existed under the covering rule of the Turk.”

“This truth of a real unity is so strong that even nations which never in the past realised an outward unification, to which Fate and circumstance and their own selves have been adverse, nations which have been full of centrifugal forces and easily overpowered by foreign intrusions, have yet always developed a centripetal force as well and arrived inevitably at organised oneness.”

There are a number of examples that illustrate this principle, including the Greek nation and the development of the Germanic nation.  “In both of these historic instances, as in so many others, the unification of Saxon England, mediaeval France, the formation of the United States of America, it was a real unity, a psychologically distinct unit which tended at first ignorantly by the subconscious necessity of its being and afterwards with a sudden or gradual awakening to the sense of political oneness, towards an inevitable external unification.  It is a distinct group-soul which is driven by inward necessity and uses outward circumstances to constitute for itself an organised body.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 35-37


Distinguishing Between Political and Real Units of Human Collectivities

When we look at the units of societal organisation, we can see a difference between the nation state, which is the predominant form that maintains internal consistency today, and the multi-national empire, which exists, not because of internal consistency necessarily, but because of the use of some form of external force or power to hold disparate national units together in a larger unity.  The national unit tends to maintain a cultural homogeneity within its borders, and is, for the most part, held together by common language, culture, religion or economic and political systems within its borders. The result is that imperial units tend to be less stable and are subject to dissolution when the central force holding them together weakens enough to allow the nation units contained within to spin off.

This is an issue that impacts the development of larger formations as it is the core of agreement within the nation state that makes it a much more stable form than the empire.

Sri Aurobindo, writing in the period between 1914 and 1920, commented on this issue:  “At the present stage of human progress the nation is the living collective unit of humanity.  Empires exist, but they are as yet only political and not real units; they haev no life from within and owe their continuance to a force imposed on their constituent elements or else to a political convenience felt or acquiesced in by the constituents and favoured by the world outside.”

When the British Empire eventually dissolved, it morphed into the British Commonwealth of Nations, a looser confederacy based on the independent nation states developing certain cooperative, primarily economic, relations among and between each other.  The key concept emphasized by Sri Aurobindo is the internal unity of the people and culture which binds them together into a stronger unit than a purely external political, economic or mechanical form of unification.  The political unit is clearly a less favored form for developing true human unity than the development of a real sense of oneness, based on the spiritual development of humanity, among all beings regardless of culture, race, language, religion or other secondary characteristics.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pp. 34-35

Three Difficulties for the Unification of Mankind

When we reflect on the question of human unity, we can recognize that there is no simple or perfect solution yet visible to us.  We view the existing forms of collectivity, and see both the benefits and the limitations of each successively larger formation.  In today’s world, we see the political and economic life of humanity managed through a series of interacting nations.  Within each nation there are smaller, more local forms of collectivity–states, counties, districts, municipalities, precincts, etc.  In many cases, these nations consist of a relatively uniform citizenry of homogeneous cultural or ethnic groups, although there are clearly examples where a heterogeneous citizenry is in evidence.  Taking this complexity as the basis, Sri Aurobindo identifies three issues that must be resolved in order to achieve the eventual unification of the largest grouping, the unity of all of humanity.

Sri Aurobindo first observes:  “There is the doubt whether the collective egoisms of humanity can at this time be sufficiently modified or abolished and whether even an external unity in some effective form can be securely established.  And there is the doubt whether, even if any such external unity can be established, it will not be at the price of crushing both the free life of the individual and the free play of the various collective units already created in which there is a real and active life and substituting a State organisation which will mechanise human existence.  Apart from these two uncertainties there is a third doubt whether a really living unity can be achieved by a mere economic, political and administrative unification and whether it ought not to be preceded by at least the strong beginnings of a moral and spiritual oneness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 5, Nation and Empire: Real and Political Unities, pg. 34

The Need for Humanity to Unify in its Inner Soul Not Just its Outward Life and Body

Throughout history, mankind has attempted to create larger socio-economic units with external means, whether through conquest, economic domination or through some type of political system or form of amalgamation derived through mutual consent of some sort.  Such formations, however, have, at some point, broken down and disintegrated.  The experiment gave humanity the opportunity to test various forms of unity and discover both their strengths and their weaknesses.  One of the more recent experiments, that of the formation of the United States, has had its serious limitations.  The attempt was made to develop a Constitution that would provide checks and balances to prevent one small group from gaining absolute power and thereby re-creating the form of monarchy or empire, both of which the founders were trying to avoid.  After a little more than 200 years, however, the changes wrought by technology, economic changes, and external pressures in the world have brought the governmental system devised by the founders to a state of near paralysis in many ways, and the advent of mass media and corporatism have subverted the checks and balances.  We may learn from this the lesson that attempting to bring about human unity through external political, economic and military means, is likely doomed to failure, and even if such a unity were to arise, it would tend to suppress individual growth, lead to stagnation and eventual collapse under its own weight.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates:  “It is therefore quite improbable that in the present conditions of the race a healthy unity of mankind can be brought about by State machinery, whether it be by a grouping of powerful and organised States enjoying carefully regulated and legalised relations with each other or by the substitution of a single World-State for the present half chaotic half ordered comity of nations,– be the form of that World-State a single empire like the Roman or a federated unity.  Such an external or administrative unity may be intended in the near future of mankind in order to accustom the race to the idea of a common life, to its habit, to its possibility, but it cannot be really healthy, durable or beneficial over all the true line of human destiny unless something be developed more profound, internal and real.  Otherwise the experience of the ancient world will be repeated on a larger scale and in other circumstances.  The experiment will break down and give place to a new reconstructive age of confusion and anarchy.  Perhaps this experience also is necessary for mankind; yet it ought to be possible for us now to avoid it by subordinating mechanical means to our true development through a moralised and even a spiritualised humanity united in its inner soul and not only in its outward life and body.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pp. 32-33

The True Role of the State in Individual and Collective Development

There are two major camps when it comes to political philosophy for humanity.  One camp focuses on the rights and needs of the individual and tries to eliminate or minimize the role of a central government, or “state”, in ordering the affairs of the individuals.  This camp does not recognize the needs of the collectivity or the requirements of the environment within which all humanity lives, in its strident attempt to liberate the individual from any constraints.  The second camp focuses on the needs of the community and seeks to order and control the individuals in order to establish a basic harmony and cooperative action around a central principle of shared resources and shared responsibilities.  Of course, there is no “pure” form of either of these forms of political organisation, so the actual examples we see of societies tipped in one direction or another are not indicative of the ideal held out by those who adhere to one side or the other of this debate.

Sri Aurobindo recognizes that each side has certain underlying truths of life that should be taken into account, but that the real issue revolves around finding the balance and harmony between these apparently conflicting objectives.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the role of the State:  “The business of the State, so long as it continues to be a necessary element in human life and growth, is to provide all possible facilities for cooperative action, to remove obstacles, to prevent all really harmful waste and friction,– a certain amount of waste and friction is necessary and useful to all natural action,– and, removing avoidable injustice, to secure for every individual a just and equal chance of self-development and satisfaction to the extent of his powers and in the line of his nature.”

“But all unnecessary interference with the freedom of man’s growth is or can be harmful.  Even cooperative action is injurious if, instead of seeking the good of all compatibly with the necessities of individual growth,– and without individual growth there can be no real and permanent good of all,– it immolates the individual to a communal egoism and prevents so much free room and initiative as is necessary for a flowering of a more perfectly developed humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo sees the development of humanity and human growth as progressive, dynamic rather than static.  Any centralized control of the individual by the State represents an attempt to create a static social order and thus, limits growth and progress.  “Always it is the individual who progresses and compels the rest to progress; the instinct of the collectivity is to stand still in its established order.  Progress, growth, realisation of wider being give his greatest sense of happiness to the individual; status, secure ease to the collectivity.  And so it must be as long as the latter is more a physical and economic entity than a self-conscious collective soul.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pp. 31-32

The State Functions as a Machinery, Not an Organism

The qualities of a living being, an organism, include responsiveness to circumstances and a certain amount of flexibility.  Those organisms that prove themselves unable to adapt to change tend to die off when the inevitable change comes about over time.  The growth and development that can bring about real progressive forward movement in the life and quality of life for humanity require adaptivity and creativity to meet new challenges.

The organisation of the State tries to bring about, not creativity, but conformity in order to manage on the massive scale that the modern State encompasses.  Variations in the State’s action may be caused by built in favoritism to a ruling elite and its supporters, or due to inherent prejudice and bias against specific groups of people.  Either way, the basic principle is one which tries to develop a uniform approach, even if layered in strata based on the differences of class, religion, gender, or nationality that enter into the program.

This focus on uniformity tends to cut off the opportunities for individuals to excel and go beyond the framework of the programmatic process.  Any variance from the program is looked upon as, at best, inefficiency that needs to be reduced or removed, or at worst, some kind of revolutionary failure to abide by the authority of the State representing the society.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  The State “…is incapable of that free, harmonious and intelligently or instinctively varied action which is proper to organic growth.  For the State is not an organism; it is a machinery, and it works like a machine, without tact, taste, delicacy or intuition.  It tries to manufacture, but what humanity is here to do is to grow and create.  We see this flaw in State-governed education.  It is right and necessary that education should be provided for all and in providing for it the State is eminently useful; but when it controls the education, it turns it into a routine, a mechanical system in which individual initiative, individual growth and true development as opposed to a routine instruction become impossible.  The State tends always to uniformity, because uniformity is easy to it and natural variation is impossible to its essentially mechanical nature; but uniformity is death, not life.  A national culture, a national religion, a national education may still be useful things provided they do not interfere with the growth of human solidarity on the one side and individual freedom of thought and conscience and development on the other; for they give form to the communal soul and help it to add its quota to the sum of human advancement; but a State education, a State religion, a State culture are unnatural violences.  And the same rule holds good in different ways and to a different extent in other directions of our communal life and its activities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pg. 31

Organised Action and Control by the State Is Not the Best Support for Human Progress

Our mentality tends to create “either/or” analyses which, by the nature of things, generally miss the correct balance in the approach.  Thus, we tend to oppose individual freedom and absolute control by the State, and take a position supporting one and opposing the other, depending on our own predilections.  However, if we recognize there can be a proper role for each in enhancing and support human progress, it is then incumbent on us to strike that proper balance and avoid the two extremes.

Looking carefully at human development, we see that it is individuals who have the specific insights or developments which become the basis of human progress.  We also note, however, that the framework of society provides the ground within which the individual awareness takes root and can thrive.  There can also be real benefits to free collaboration, which helps to shape ideas and put them into a concrete form of action.

Societies which have tried to create a centralised control over the actions and directions taken by individuals, and which try to monitor and demand results of one sort or another, have not proven themselves best at innovation.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  The State “…is capable of providing the cooperative action of the individuals in the community with all necessary conveniences and of removing from it disabilities and obstacles which would otherwise interfere with its working.  Here the real utility of the State ceases.  The non-recognition of the possibilities of human cooperation was the weakness of English individualism; the turning of a utility for cooperative action into an excuse for rigid control by the State is the weakness of the Teutonic idea of collectivism.  When the State attempts to take up the control of the cooperative action of the community, it condemns itself to create a monstrous machinery which will end by crushing out the freedom, initiative and various growth of the human being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pp. 30-31