The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development by Sri Aurobindo. U.S. edition published by Lotus Press

The Human Cycle: Psychology of Social Development
by Sri Aurobindo – Ghose, Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo explores the cycles of human development with an eye toward showing the underlying trend and impulsion in that development. He shows how humanity moves successively through various stages whereby different powers are developed and highlighted towards an ultimate integration and fulfillment of human destiny in an outflowing of our hidden spiritual nature in the diversity and vibrancy of our physical, vital and mental life.

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'The Human Cycle Psychology of Social Development Sri Aurobindo The Human Cycle: The sychology Social Development Sri Aurobindo shows how humanity moves successively through various stages whereby different powers are developed and highlighted towards an ultimate integration and fulfillment of human destiny in an outflowing of our hidden spiritual nature in the diversity and vibrancy of our physical, vital and mental life. Sri Aurobindo Item #: 990049 ISBN: 978-0-9149-5544-3 LOTUS'

The Evolutionary Destiny of Humanity

The human being represents the development of a new power of consciousness for the earth-nature.  This does not imply that at the present time all human individuals are able to fully manifest this power, but it is clear there is a continuum that puts all humanity on a level of its own, with the variances between individuals primarily one of intensity or magnitude of the manifestation of the power of the mind of reason.  This evolutionary leap took place within the framework of physical matter and vital powers that define the animal kingdom.  While animals are typal beings, tied to their habits and customs without enormous range of creativity or development, human beings have proven themselves capable of self-reflection and inner growth.  At the same time, the development of the mental powers has resulted in a considerable amount of imbalance, as if humanity had not yet found its solid footing with these new powers.  This is a sign that the evolutionary transition is not yet completed and that man is a transitional, not a final, typal being.  There is more room for growth and development in humanity’s future.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “If the light that is being born increases, if the number of individuals who seek to realise the possibility in themselves and in the world grows large and they get nearer the right way, then the Spirit who is here in man, now a concealed divinity, a developing light and power, will descend more fully as the Avatar of a yet unseen and unguessed Godhead from above into the soul of mankind and into the great individualities in whom the light and power are the strongest.  There will then be fulfilled the change that will prepare the transition of human life from its present limits into those larger and purer horizons; the earthly evolution will have taken its grand impetus upward and accomplished the revealing step in a divine progression of which the birth of thinking and aspiring man from the animal nature was only an obscure preparation and a far-off promise.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 268-269

The Spiritual Transformation and Human Society

As we reflect on the implications of a spiritual transformation and its impact on individuals and the society, several questions arise.  What is the process by which such a transformation of society can actually take place, and in what steps, stages or time-frames can it occur?  Does all of humanity participate in the transformation, and if not, what is the relationship between those who have been part of the transformation and those who have not?  How does the society function in the case of a less than total transformation?  Is this the end-goal of human development, or does this represent another stage in an unending progression?

Sri Aurobindo raises these issues and comments on them briefly:  “This endeavour will be a supreme and difficult labour even for the individual, but much more for the race.  It may well be that, once started, it may not advance rapidly even to its first decisive stage; it may be that it will take long centuries of effort to come into some kind of permanent birth.  But that is not altogether inevitable, for the principle of such changes in Nature seems to be a long obscure preparation followed by a swift gathering up and precipitation of the elements into the new birth, a rapid conversion, a transformation that in its luminous moments figures like a miracle.  Even when the first decisive change is reached, it is certain that all humanity will not be able to rise to that level.  There cannot fail to be a division into those who are able to live on the spiritual level and those who are only able to live in the light that descends from it into the mental level.  And below these too there might still be a great mass influenced from above but not yet ready for the light.  But even that would be a transformation and a beginning far beyond anything yet attained.  This hierarchy would not mean as in our present vital living an egoistic domination of the underdeveloped by the more developed, but a guidance of the younger by the elder brothers of the race and a constant working to lift them up to a greater spiritual level and wider horizons.”

“And for the leaders too this ascent to the first spiritual levels would not be the end of the divine march, a culmination that left nothing more to be achieved on earth.  For there would be still yet higher levels within the supramental realm, as the old Vedic poets knew when they spoke of the spiritual life as a constant ascent … But once the foundation has been secured, the rest develops by a progressive self-unfolding and the soul is sure of its way…. ”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 267-268

Taking Up the Task of Transforming All Human Life and Activities

The complexity of human life, with all the different levels, functions, drives and needs that interact and create the human being make the issue of transformation that life extraordinarily complex.  Human society, made up of all of the individuals, gains an even greater level of complexity with respect to accomplishing real tranformative change.  Anyone who has tried to actually live out the truths of their religious beliefs, practices or philosophy can testify to the difficulty.  In the Old Testament of the Bible the Ten Commandments set forth a specific set of guidelines for living, yet it may be virtually impossible to identify any individual who can live his life according to these great rules.  Christianity has brought forth the idea of the “Golden Rule” to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself, but even this ‘simple’ concept has failed to transform human life.  Past attempts have tried to “cut the knot” of the difficulty when it could not be easily ‘untied’, by abandoning the active side of life and retreating to a spiritual seclusion to practice and achieve the realisation.  Sri Aurobindo sets before us the challenge to actually solve these issues, meet the difficulties head on, and address every aspect of life without retreating from their reason, purpose and unique powers of action.

“For every part of human life has to be taken up by the spiritual, — not only the intellectual, the aesthetic, the ethical, but the dynamic, the vital, the physical; therefore for none of these things or the activities that spring from them will they have contempt or aversion, however they may insist on a change of the spirit and a transmutation of the form.  In each power of our nature they will seek for its own proper means of conversion; knowing that the Divine is concealed in all, they will hold that all can be made the spirit’s means of self-finding and all can be converted into its instruments of divine living.  And they will see that the great necessity is the conversion of the normal into the spiritual mind and the opening of that mind again into its own higher reaches and more and more integral movement.  For before the decisive change can be made, the stumbling intellectual reason has to be converted into the precise and luminous intuitive, until that again can rise into higher ranges to overmind and supermind or gnosis. … All our other members have to pass through a similar conversion under the compelling force and light from above.   The leaders of the spiritual march will start from and use the knowledge and the means that past effort has developed in this direction, but they will not take them as they are without any deep necessary change or limit themselves by what is now known or cleave only to fixed and stereotyped systems or given groupings of results, but will follow the method of the Spirit in Nature.  A constant rediscovery and a new formulation and larger synthesis in the mind, a mighty remoulding in its deeper parts because of a greater enlarging Truth not discovered or not well fixed before, is that Spirit’s way with our past achievement when he moves to the greatnesses of the future.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 266-267

Characteristics of the Evolutionary Individual

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to describe the individual who is united in yoga with the Divine.  How does he sit, how does he speak, how does he walk, ask Arjuna.  Sri Krishna replies that there are not specific outer forms or signs, but rather, an inner consciousness that defines the yogi.  When we consider all of the imperfections of the life and the society around us in the world, there are several impulses which arise.  One is to try to change it, and this generally starts with the idea of a new political philosophy, a new religious direction, a new economic ordering of the world.  Another is to abandon it in favor of individual salvation, which leads to the ascetic renunciation and the cave, the desert or the monastery.  For a transformative spiritual change to take place in society, it soon becomes clear that neither of these approaches will succeed.  What is needed is a new, integral standpoint that recognises the need for inner transformation as the basis for outer change, and which recognises the need to apply this inner growth to the functioning of society and the relations of human beings with one another, with their environment and with the interactive life that participates in and shares that environment in a symbiotic, comprehensive manner with us.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… the individuals who will most help the future of humanity in the new age will be those who will recognise a spiritual evolution as the destiny and therefore the great need of the human being. … They will be comparatively indifferent to particular belief and form and leave men to resort to the beliefs and forms to which they are naturally drawn.  They will only hold as essential the faith in this spiritual conversion, the attempt to live it out and whatever knowledge — the form of opinion into which it is thrown does not so much matter — can be converted into this living.  They will especially not make the mistake of thinking that this change can be effected by machinery and outward institutions; they will know and never forget that it has to be lived out by each man inwardly or it can never be made a reality for the kind.  They will adopt in its heart of meaning the inward view of the East which bids man seek the secret of his destiny and salvation within; but also they will accept, though with a different turn given to it, the importance which the West rightly attaches to life and to the making the best we know and can attain the general rule of all life.  … They will not accept the theory that the many must necessarily remain for ever on the lower ranges of life and only a few climb into the free air and the light, but will start from the standpoint of the great spirits who have striven to regenerate the life of the earth and held that faith in spite of all previous failure.  Failures must be originally numerous in everything great and difficult, but the time comes when the experience of past failures can be profitably used and the gate that so long resisted opens. … A true beginning has to be made; the rest is a work for Time in its sudden achievements or its long patient labour.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 265-266

The Essential Progress Required for a Spiritual Transformation

Historically, as a spiritual vision leads to the development of a formalized religion, with its own dogmas, creeds, rituals and protocols, the focus has shifted from the transformation of the individual inwardly, and then the society through the pressure of this inward change,to an attempt to impose that particular religious viewpoint on others, through peer pressure, social benefits tied to religious adoption, or even, in various cases, through violent conversions or suppression of other ways.  While the watchword of spiritual growth is freedom, the impulse toward control and suppression seems to take the upper hand eventually.  Additionally, once a religion recognizes that changing basic human nature and the institutions that operate the society is difficult, if not virtually impossible, through the methods they are using, they shift their focus to achieving the goals of the religion in some other world or other life and defer the “benefits” of the religion for another time and place.  There is no doubt that transforming human nature through a slow, evolutionary process means that progress is in many cases very hard to see, and both patience and persistence in that process are put to the test.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The ambition of a particular religious belief and form to universalise and impose itself is contrary to the variety of human nature and to at least one essential character of the Spirit.  For the nature of the Spirit is a spacious inner freedom and a large unity into which each man must be allowed to grow according to his own nature.  Again — and this is yet another source of inevitable failure — the usual tendency of these credal religions is to turn towards an afterworld and to make the regeneration of the earthly life a secondary motive; this tendency grows in proportion as the original hope of a present universal regeneration of mankind becomes more and more feeble.  Therefore while many new spiritual waves with their strong special motives and disciplines must necessarily be the forerunners of a spiritual age, yet their claims must be subordinated in the general mind of the race and of its spiritual leaders to the recognition that all motives and disciplines are valid and yet none entirely valid since they are mans and not the one thing to be done.  The one thing essential must take precedence, the conversion of the whole life of the human being to the lead of the spirit.  The ascent of man into heaven is not the key, but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature.  For that and not some post mortem salvation is the real new birth for which humanity waits as the crowning movement of its long obscure and painful course.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 264-265

Religion and the Future of Spirituality as a Transformative Force for Humanity

A spiritual visionary arises, someone who has had spiritual experience and gained a new insight into the human condition and the needs for transforming it.  In the normal course, this has led to the development of a group of adherents or followers who are inspired by the vision and experience, and then as the movement expands outwards it takes on a form and begins to create doctrines, rituals and formations which creates a formalized religion focused on these outer forms and dogmas.  At a certain point, the inner experience is suppressed or lost entirely in the mechanical body that has been created.  This pattern has been oft repeated in human history.  It becomes clear that the repetition of this pattern is not fruitful for the type of inner spiritual transformation of humanity that is required.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The aim of a spiritual age of mankind must indeed be one with the essential aim of subjective religions, a new birth, a new consciousness, an upward evolution of the human being, a descent of the spirit into our members, a spiritual reorganisation of our life; but if it limits itself by the old familiar apparatus and the imperfect means of a religious movement, it is likely to register another failure.  A religious movement brings usually a wave of spiritual excitement and aspiration that communicates itself to a large number of individuals and there is as a result a temporary uplifting and an effective formation, partly spiritual, partly ethical, partly dogmatic in its nature.  But the wave after a generation or two or at most a few generations begins to subside; the formation remains.  If there has been a very powerful movement with a great spiritual personality as its source, it may leave behind a central influence and an inner discipline which may well be the starting-point of fresh waves; but these will be constantly less powerful and enduring in proportion as the movement gets farther and farther away from its source.  For meanwhile in order to bind together the faithful and at the same time to mark them off from the unregenerated outer world, there will have grown up a religious order, a Church, a hierarchy, a fixed and unprogressive type of ethical living, a set of crystallised dogmas, ostentatious ceremonials, sanctified superstitions, an elaborate machinery for the salvation of mankind.  As a result spirituality is increasingly subordinated to intellectual belief, to outward forms of conduct and to external ritual, the higher to the lower motives, the one thing essential to aids and instruments and accidents.  The first spontaneous and potent attempt to convert the whole life into spiritual living yields up its place to a set system of belief and ethics touched by spiritual emotion; but finally even that saving element is dominated by outward machinery, the sheltering structure becomes a tomb.  The Church takes the place of the spirit and a formal subscription to its creed, rituals and order is the thing universally demanded; spiritual living is only practiced by the few within the limits prescribed by their fixed creed and order.  The majority neglects even that narrow effort and are contented to replace by a careful or negligent piety the call to a deeper life.  In the end it is found that the spirit in the religion has become a thin stream choked by sands; at the most brief occasional floodings of its dry bed of conventions still prevent it from becoming a memory in the dead chapters of Time.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 263-264

A Spiritualised Society Is Created by Spiritualised Individuals

There is a debate about how social change takes place.  There are those who hold that by making macro-level changes in the “machinery” of society, the behavior of individuals is changed.  This camp believes in education, changes in the economic model, and manipulation of media and other forms of communication to effect changes.  Another viewpoint is that changes begin with the individual and through the increasing force of adoption by individuals, society begins to change.  There is a level of truth to each of these viewpoints; yet, the changes wrought by societal-level implementation tend to be more external and are enforced by external means.  There is no deep or necessary transformation of individual thought or feeling, Eventually, suppressed ideas or responses begin to reassert themselves.  This makes progress both temporary and somewhat illusory, as the basic character of the human beings constituting the society remains mostly unchanged.  Deeper change requires individual acceptance.  If a society is going to evolve, there must be evolution on the part of its constituent members.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This, as the subjective religions recognise, can only be brought about by an individual change in each human life.  The collective soul is there only as a great half-subconscient source of the individual existence; if it is to take on a definite psychological form or a new kind of collective life, that can only come by the shaping growth of its individuals.  As will be the spirit and life of the individuals constituting it, so will be the realised spirit of the collectivity and the true power of its life.  A society that lives not by its men but by its institutions, is not a collective soul, but a machine; its life becomes a mechanical product and ceases to be a living growth.  Therefore the coming of a spiritual age must be preceded by the appearance of an increasing number of individuals who are no longer satisfied with the normal intellectual, vital and physical existence of man, but perceive that a greater evolution is the real goal of humanity and attempt to effect it in themselves, to lead others to it and to make it the recognised goal of the race.  In proportion as they succeed and to the degree to which they carry this evolution, the yet unrealised potentiality which they represent will become an actual possibility of the future.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pg. 263

Spirituality Means Living a Divine Life

There is a vast difference between mental acceptance and adherence to an ideal, and actually transforming one’s life and actions to match that ideal.  This can be seen throughout history where a high ideal captured the imagination of a sizable segment of humanity, but left people virtually unchanged, satisfied that in their mental agreement they had accomplished their goal and could rest satisfied.  In today’s world we see people expressing adherence to religions of peace leading the calls for war against non-believers or simply those who stand in the way of some economic benefit or resource.  We can observe people who nominally accept a religion that started with the idea of helping those suffering and less fortunate, working to actively increase the suffering of the unfortunate and disenfranchised!

Sri Aurobindo clarifies that simply holding an ideal, but not implementing it, is “not enough”:  “For the way that humanity deals with an ideal is to be satisfied with it as an aspiration which is for the most part left only as an aspiration, accepted only as a partial influence.  The ideal is not allowed to mould the whole life, but only more or less to colour it; it is often used even as a cover and a plea for things that are diametrically opposed to its real spirit.  Institutions are created which are supposed, but too lightly supposed to embody that spirit and the fact that the ideal is held, the fact that men live under its institutions is treated as sufficient.  The holding of an ideal becomes almost an excuse for not living according to the ideal; the existence of its institutions is sufficient to abrogate the need of insisting on the spirit that made the institutions.  But spirituality is in its very nature a thing subjective and not mechanical; it is nothing if it is not lived inwardly and if the outward life does not flow out of this inward living.  Symbols, types, conventions, ideas are not sufficient.  A spiritual symbol is only a meaningless ticket, unless the thing symbolised is realised in the spirit.  A spiritual convention may lose or expel its spirit and become a falsehood.   … A spiritual idea is a power, but only when it is both inwardly and outwardly creative.  Here we have to enlarge and to deepen the pragmatic principle that truth is what we create, and in this sense first, that it is what we create within us, in other words, what we become.  Undoubtedly, spiritual truths exist eternally beyond independent of us in the heavens of the spirit; but it is of no avail for humanity here, it does not become truth of earth, truth of life until it is lived.  The divine perfection is always there above us; but for man to become divine in consciousness and act and to live inwardly and outwardly the divine life is what is meant by spirituality; all lesser meanings given to the word are inadequate fumblings or impostures.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 262-263

It Is Not Enough …

When we observe the state of humanity and the world, it becomes clear that some substantial change needs to take place as we face what appears to be a  serious  existential crisis.  Recent reporting shows that as many as a million species are facing extinction as changes in climate, habitat and human interaction with the natural world are wreaking havoc on balances of Nature.  Climate change is exacerbating pressures caused by rapid population growth and the pressure that it places on fresh water, food and the ability of the planet to sustain that growth.  Warfare and mass migration are the result of these imbalances and the historical divisions among human groupings.  Add to this the pressure caused by the attempt to fulfill desires stirred up and created through media manipulation solely for corporate profits.  Looking at this, a change in human focus and motivation toward a spiritual direction seems like it would be a welcome relief.  And there is no doubt that such a change would represent real progress.  But Sri Aurobindo shows us why this is simply “not enough”:

“If a subjective age, the last sector of a social cycle, is to find its outlet and fruition in a spiritualised society and the emergence of mankind on a higher evolutionary level, it is not enough that certain ideas favourable to that turn of human life should take hold of the general mind of the race, permeate the ordinary motives of its thought, art, ethics, political ideals, social effort, or even get well into its inner way of thinking and feeling.  It is not enough even that the idea of the kingdom of God on earth, a reign of spirituality, freedom and unity, a real and inner equality and harmony — and not merely an outward and mechanical equalisation and association — should become definitely an ideal of life; it is not enough that this ideal should be actively held as possible, desirable, to be sought and striven after, it is not enough even that it should come forward as a governing preoccupation of the human mind.  That would evidently be a very great step forward, — considering what the ideals of mankind now are, an enormous step.  It would be the necessary beginning, the indispensable mental environment for a living renovation of human society in a higher type.  But by itself it might only bring about a half-hearted or else a strong but only partially and temporarily successful attempt to bring something of the manifest spirit into human life and its institutions.  That is all that mankind has ever attempted on this line in the past.  It has never attempted to work out thoroughly even that little, except in the limits of a religious order or a peculiar community, and even there with such serious defects and under such drastic limitations as to make the experiment nugatory and without any bearing on human life.  If we do not get beyond the mere holding of the ideal and its general influence in human life, this little is all that mankind will attempt in the future.  More is needed; a general spiritual awakening and aspiration in mankind is indeed the large necessary motive-power, but the effective power must be something greater.  There must be a dynamic re-creating of individual manhood in the spiritual type.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 261-262