This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Mark Hager’s recently published book, ‘Elusive Ideology: Religion and Socialism in Modern Indian Thought,’ currently available through Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Barefoot Cafe and Expographic in Pelawatte. The book’s Introduction and its Chapter 1 on Swami Vivekananda appeared in the August 2022 issue of Echelon entitled ‘What Should Modern Independent India Be and How Can It Get There?
Zealous bibliophile and yogic visionary, Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghosh) (1872- 1950) began his life at Khulna, East Bengal (now Bangladesh), the son of a surgeon. He schooled in England from 1884-1892 at St. Paul’s School, Cambridge and at King’s College, Cambridge University. Upon returning to India, he entered the service of the Maharaja of Baroda and taught English and French at Baroda College, later becoming the College’s vice principal.
He launched his career in anti-imperial journalism in 1893 and later became active in anti-imperial political organizations. In 1906, he moved to Calcutta, joined Bipin Chandra Pal in founding the radical newspaper Bande Mataram, and succeeded Pal as leader of Bengal’s radical Nationalist Party. He was arrested for sedition in 1907, then released, and arrested again in 1908 on charges connected to an attempted assassination of a British official. He remained in prison for a year, enduring several months of solitary confinement. Acquitted of charges in 1909, he founded two weekly journals that same year. He attenuated his activist politics and moved to Pondicherry in 1910. In 1914, he founded the monthly Arya, which between 1914 and 1921 published in serialized form his most important works in social philosophy.
Aurobindo began experimenting with yoga and mystical lore as early as 1904 and cultivated these interests throughout the remainder of his active career in journalism and politics. In 1926, he retired fully from his activist career into a life of concentrated meditation, which he pursued until his death. His intellectual life during this period focused on producing works of mystical philosophy.
Scholarly prodigy and ambitious synthesizer, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858- 1932) was born to a well-to-do family at Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh. In 1877, while attending Presidency College in Calcutta, he converted to the Brahmo Samaj, a step followed later in life by other significant shifts in religious orientation. He studied comparative theology for a year at England’s Oxford University and subsequently toured the lecture circuit in England, France and the United States.
Back in India, Pal began a career in political journalism and became involved in efforts to transform the Indian National Congress toward a mass membership organization with democratic decision-making processes. Along with Aurobindo, he became a principal leader in the radical Bengali faction of the nationalist movement. In 1906, he co-found ed with Aurobindo the nationalist journal Bande Mataram. He served six months imprisonment in 1908 for refusing to give evidence against Aurobindo in the Bande Mataram sedition trial.
Upon release from prison, Pal exiled himself to England until 1911. His imprisonment and self-imposed exile coincided with a marked shift in his political outlook: from “extremist” advocacy of prompt and total Indian independence to an apparently more “moderate” position favoring India’s participation in what he imagined as a federation of coequal nations within a British Imperial Federation. He began to edit an English monthly, Hindu Review, emphasizing themes of international cooperation and stressing the dangers of exaggerated nationalism. His emerging concerns, though far from meritless, were markedly out of step with India’s rising nationalist consciousness. For the rest of his life, his idiosyncratic development nudged him more or less to the sidelines of political events. He nevertheless continued to speak out publicly on issues of the day and remained active turning out books and articles expressing his religiously-tinged social philosophy. After his early identification with the Brahmo Samaj, Pal’s religious orientation continued to evolve, first through an engagement with Advaita, then to the influence of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavite (Vishnu-oriented) Bhakti devotionalism.
No one exemplifies India’s first radicalism better than Aurobindo and Pal. Together they forged a radical ideology that left India’s nationalist movement forever transformed, an ideology of uncompromising anticolonialism, socialist sympathies and intense religious concern. Like Das, they saw in Hindu culture the prefiguration of socialist society. Unlike Das, however, they declined to interpret classical Hindu social order itself as socialist blueprint. They urged instead a selective recovery of Hindu social values within awareness of historical change The past could be appropriated not through mere revival but through critical reform and reinterpretation.
It is fitting to study Aurobindo and Pal together because their careers are both parallel and divergent. In roughly the same time span between 1895 and 1930, both moved from a stage of intense activist involvement in the nationalist movement to a later stage of committed philosophical reflection on the meanings and purposes of social life. In their retirements from activism, both sought to fit their ideas about social action into a larger framework of religious ideas. In both cases, this extended religious reflection emerged from concerns evident even in their early careers. Beginning with similar concerns and comparable outlooks, they evolved orientations grounded in two distinct strands of Hindu tradition: Advaita for Aurobindo and Bhakti for Pal.
Aurobindo and Pal were not only contemporaries and kindred spirits but also friends and collaborators. Together in 1906 they founded Bande Mataram, a newspaper that became for a time the ideological flagship of “extremist” nationalism in Bengal. Despite their increasingly divergent Hindu orientations, they resembled each other in many key social ideas. Above all, they converged in a common paradigm of society. Any community, they stressed, is a distinct identity common to its members. Bearing a particular character, genius or personality, it exists in webs of relationships with other communities, just as persons within a society live in similar relational webs. Furthermore, just as it lives within larger communities, it subsumes smaller ones within itself. Those larger and smaller ones also manifest distinct personalities.
Many of Pal’s and Aurobindo’s leading themes stem from this conception of society. Societies evolve through progressive federalization among distinct groups. Larger and higher societies arise from cooperation for a common good among initially separate lower-level ones. As new societies arise this way, the previously-existing societies are transformed. They ideally retain distinct existences, but also take on new existence as parts of larger wholes. This process of harmonious social evolution through mutual cooperation goes awry only when the distinct existence of some given society is effaced by coercion from an equivalent or higherlevel society.
To Pal and Aurobindo, social harmony lies in the willing and reciprocal cooperation of societies in the creation and life of higher societies. Both view historical India as an exemplification of this evolutionary social federalism. They visualize it as a civilization of stable cooperation among the countless distinct communities that variations in geography and culture have thrown up. Harmonious orchestration of potentially chaotic diversity has been India’s leading social achievement. If social progress lies in evolutionary federalism, then India’s past is the world’s future.
Societies impart their distinctive identities to groups and individuals within them. Societies are therefore a ground and source of personal identity. A person’s identity forms in the womb of the various groups whose life she shares in various degrees. Any society large or small is therefore a mother to its members, a source of their identities. Since it is fitting to honor one’s mother, source of one’s identity, Aurobindo and Pal stress service and devotion to one’s society or societies. As nationalists, they stress Indian identity as one that has previously been denied her due. The time has come for devotion to Mother India. As Mother, source of identity, India calls her children to honor her with the prayer Aurobindo and Pal popularize: Bande Mataram (Revere the Mother). As Pal writes: “This New Nationalism which BANDE-MATARAM reveals is not, therefore, a mere civic or economic or political ideal. It is a religion.”
As advocates of the “New Nationalism,” so-called “Extremists” like Pal and Aurobindo agitated for a nationbuilding program designed to hasten Independence by supplanting British rule from within. One key component of that program was swadeshi (of one’s own country). Swadeshi meant boycotting British-made goods and patronizing Indian goods so as to strengthen India’s native economy. Aurobindo and Pal view swadeshi and the whole nationalist program as an effort to fortify India in both material and spiritual dimensions. As Pal writes, swadeshi represents “not a mere economic movement,” but one with spiritual significance: cultivation of India’s communal consciousness and effort. With such interlocked concern for economics and spiritualities, Aurobindo and Pal fit themselves into our problematic.
“To Pal and Aurobindo, social harmony lies in the willing and reciprocal cooperation of societies in the creation and life of higher societies. Both view historical India as an exemplification of this evolutionary social federalism”
Aurobindo begins his public career during the 1890s with journalism calling for India’s prompt independence. No aspect of India’s wellbeing, he insists, can be secured without first securing independence. The early nationalist movement exemplified by the Indian National Congress had generally stressed the need for extensive social reform in order to prepare India for self-government. Aurobindo reverses this priority, arguing that no significant social reform can occur under British imperial rule. Political independence must come first:
Political freedom is the lifebreath of a nation; to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility.
One aspect of the new nationalist program stressed especially by Aurobindo is so-called “passive resistance.” This includes non-cooperation with British authority and includes illegal methods, such as non-payment of taxes, in order to subvert and overthrow it. It is worth mentioning some aspects of Aurobindo’s views on passive resistance, in order to contrast them later with Gandhi’s views.
Passive resistance is not, for Aurobindo, a policy of stringent nonviolence requiring practitioners to suffer harm from opponents. Nonviolence should be the primary posture of resistance, but only so long as opponents do not resort to force in suppressing resistance, even if such force is “legal.” According to Aurobindo, violent suppression can rightfully be met with violence sufficient to repel attack. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with violence, if it responds to violence from authority lacking legitimacy in the first place. At times, Aurobindo seems to repudiate even a presumption in favor of non-violence. Political action, he argues, requires ethics of the “Kshatriya,” (warrior) not that of the “priest.” Use of violence, as he writes at one point, is “purely a matter of policy and expediency.” Violence may be inexpedient, but there is no “moral question.” The morality of political action must be judged according to ends pursued and achieved, not means utilized.
In his prolific and brilliant early journalism, Aurobindo emphasizes ways in which British rule has retarded India’s development Imperialism’s negative effects are, first, economic. Spokesmen within the Congress had long spoken of the “drain” of Indian resources used to support imperialism’s administrative apparatus. Aurobindo focuses instead on the less obvious but far more massive drain he sees stemming from the position of India’s entire economy as a field of capitalist exploitation. With the deft irony characteristic of his early work, he writes:
The huge price India has to pay England for the inestimable privilege of being ruled by Englishmen is a small thing compared with the murderous drain by which we purchase the more exquisite privilege of being exploited by British capital.
To Aurobindo, British rule is in its essence a dominion of capital, incapable of serving India’s economic well-being and in fact ensuring “chronic famine” and “impoverishment.” India’s economic wellbeing therefore requires an independent national state. “The only possible method of stopping the drain is to establish a popular government which may be relied on to foster and protect Indian commerce and Indian industry…,” he writes. Until true independence can be achieved, boycott and swadeshi must be deployed to loosen Britain’s hold on India’s economy, while strengthening India’s own productive capacities.
Aurobindo finds imperialism an obstacle to India’s progress not only economically, but also socially and culturally. India must reshape its hierarchical caste society toward a more “democratic” order that Aurobindo calls “socialism.” This requires propagating true Vedantic thought, a mission impossible under British rule:
We must educate every Indian, man, woman and child, in the ideals of our religion and philosophy before we can rationally expect our society to reshape itself in the full and perfect spirit of the Vedantic gospel of equality… And because such education is impossible except through the aid of state-finance…the Nationalist must emphasize the immediate need of political freedom without which Indians cannot obtain the necessary control over their money.
While stressing the priority of political liberation, Aurobindo insists that Indian nationalism take as its larger goal the radical transformation of Indian society itself. This requires more than merely establishing Britishstyle parliamentary government and political equality as advocated by the Congress. In Man-like fashion, Aurobindo points out that these achievements would primarily benefit India’s “new middle class,” which the Congress chiefly represents, in guise of representing India as a whole. He implores the nationalist movement not to recreate in India a British-style capitalist order: political equality combined with sharp social inequality, class divisions, and economic “pauperism” for the lowly. The nationalist movement’s focus should be not installation of British-style political institutions, but rather the creation of “democracy and socialism” in the social order. To achieve this, the movement must in socialist fashion stress economic and cultural advancement for India’s impoverished millions, “that vast unhappy proletariat,” as Aurobindo calls them Such is the movement’s “first and holiest duty.”
As invocation of “holy duty” indicates, Aurobindo’s nationalism is religious, as well as socialist and anti-imperialist. “What is Nationalism?” asks Aurobindo. “Nationalism is not a mere political programme: Nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed which you shall have to live.” There is a marked Bhakti strand in Aurobindo’s early thought on religion and society. He speaks of India, for example, as “the ancient Mother” and as “divinity” and of patriotism as “realization of the Motherhood of God in the country” and as Bhakti.” This early Bhakti strand drops away in his mature social thought, supplanted more and more by a different theme: interpretation of religion, society, and morality through Advaita.
Even in his early writings on national religion, Aurobindo deploys an Advaitic moral language reminiscent of Vivekananda:
…[A]nother name for faith is selflessness. This movement in Bengal, this movement of Nationalism is not guided by any self-interest, not at the heart of it… It is a religion which we are trying to live. It is a religion by which we are trying to realize God in the nation, in our fellow-countrymen. We are trying to realize him in the three hundred millions of our people… This is our religion… the absolute denial of the idea of one’s separate self, and the finding of one’s higher eternal Self in the three hundred millions of people in whom God himself lives.
Though he seldom again states it so explicitly, Aurobindo organizes his entire social philosophy around this Advaitic theme of sacrificing the illusory private self in order to realize a large; truer Self which is simultaneously God and society. During roughly the second decade of the twentieth century, Aurobindo authors a massive exposition of his Advaita social philosophy, embodied in a number of works, notably The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human Cycle and Foundations of Indian Culture.
Aurobindo thinks that the life of any person or group within a larger society can be described at least potentially as an activity of simultaneous self-sacrifice and self-realization. This formulation resembles both Vivekananda and such Western thinkers as Hegel and Durkheim.
Spiritual growth, as he thinks, lies in progressive “enlargement of the conception of the self.” It entails “asceticism,” renunciation of animallike instinctual or material enjoyments associated with narrow bodily self-hood. It provides, however, a “higher fulfillment,” spiritual rather than material, the more so as one’s social self-conception grows more universal, hence more distant from one’s private material interests. This ascent to higher Selfhoods is ascent from animal life to divine life. It is knowledge of God. It is also the meaning and essence of morality.
This focus on the problem of selfhood provokes Aurobindo to call his social philosophy a “subjective” science. A subjective social science, as he explains, probes the self-understanding of selves, both individual and social. The crucial component of any self is precisely its self-understanding. All persons and groups are selves, or “souls,” and display some distinctive self-understanding, some awareness of purpose being realized. A “subjective” social science seeks to recognize these self-understandings, yet comprehend them critically within the Advaitic insight of ultimate non-separateness in Selfhood.
Aurobindo contrasts his “subjective” approach to human nature with Western liberalism, which he calls “individualism” or “objectivism.” Objectivism views humans in terms of their object-like external separateness. In doing so, it posits artificial problems of freedom and order. The “objectivist” postulate of radical human separateness provokes two opposing anxieties: to protect this separateness in the name of freedom, and to efface it in the name of order. Hence, Aurobindo suggests that objectivism gives rise to opposite exaggerations: “individualism” and “collectivism.” Objectivism sees inevitable antagonism between any self and its social existence. This postulated separateness and conflict among selves makes social existence itself hard to explain.
Aurobindo criticizes two liberal responses to this characteristically liberal dilemma, responses he thinks become needful within liberalism’s “objectivist” positing of social life as inevitably violent to selfhood. The first, which we may call Hobbesian, envisions social order as an imposition of superior and repressive force upon the separate selves within society. The second, which we may call Kantian, imagines social order emerging from each self ‘s self-imposition of rationality upon itself.
Aurobindo does not say precisely how his own views of the higher self ‘s asceticism and restraint of the lower self differs from Kant’s image of the self ‘s selfsubordination. It seems that he envisions transcendence of the lower self through communal engagement while thinking that Kant envisions individuals imposing abstract rationality upon themselves in autonomous isolation from each other.
A stress on subjectivity, he thinks, avoids the dilemmas and errors of liberal theory. Properly conceived, subjective social science can highlight and pay due respect to the inner selfhood of persons and groups while also viewing their social relationships as a species of self-fulfillment. Hence, a subjective theory explains more convincingly than could a liberal theory how individual and communal well-being might coexist harmoniously:
In this view neither the separate growth of the individual nor the all-absorbing growth of the group can be the ideal, but an equal, simultaneous and, as far as may be, parallel development of both, in which each helps to fulfill the other. Each being has his own truth of independent self-realization and his truth of self-realization in the life of others…
Advaitic science accords proper dignity both to embracing communities and to persons and groups within them, because it recognizes Selfhood manifest equally at all levels of Self.
The right science and practice of relationships in Selfhood Aurobindo calls dharma (law, duty, righteousness). Dharma is no fixed moral code, but rather the Self ‘s powerful, though fallible, instinct for true wellbeing. Because of their inner selfhood, he argues, all persons and groups have their own dharma, svadharma, action which comports with their proper well-being. Well-being lies in cultivating both one’s own unique localized selfhood and the more transcendent universal Selfhood resident in various social groupings. Dharma is therefore a discipline aimed at proper self-understanding, moksa (spiritual liberation). When true dharma reigns all social restraint appears as voluntary self-restraint, in which proper mutual claims are recognized among various aspects and levels of Selfhood. Like Selfhood, dharma is universal, though each different manifestation of Selfhood has its own svadharma.
Aurobindo’s notions of morality and human nature echo through his views of social evolution. If Vivekananda’s Advaita is Kantian, Aurobindo’s is Hegelian. Aurobindo interprets society in relentlessly evolutionary terms like Hegel, viewing history as essentially the growth of higher and more complex forms of human community. Aurobindo portrays this evolution as a movement through distinct successive “ages” or “stages” in spiritual and social development: the conventional age, the individualistic age, the subjective age, and so on. Emergence of wider communities from smaller partial ones may display varying mixtures of coercion and cooperation, and the moral quality of the wider community depends on preponderance of cooperation over coercion in its internal life. Aurobindo s ideal community is one of close and intense cooperation among free and equal participants. He finds this ideal best exemplified by the participatory-democracy of small-scale ancient states:
The tendency to a democratic freedom in which every man had a natural part in the civic life a’, well as in the cultural institutions of the State, an equal voice in the determination of law and policy and as much share in their execution as could be assured to him – by his right as a citizen and his capacity as an individual — this democratic tendency was inborn in the spirit and inherent in the form of the city-state… As in the political and civic, so in the social life. A certain democratic equality is almost inevitable in a small community… [I]t was the complete participation not of a limited class, but of the individual generally in the many-sided life of the community…
Aurobindo takes pains to stress the origins, varieties and vicissitudes of these “ancient republics,” emphasizing less their institutional forms that their active, participatory and egalitarian spirit. He also finds participatory self-government a key feature of life in ancient Indian castes and guilds, villages and townships, religious communities and even families. Castes and guilds, he suggests, regulated themselves through participatory communal assembly, jati-sangha. Villages and townships, participatory communities “autonomous and self-governing;” utilized democratic devices like the assembly and the vote. Aurobindo further stresses participatory and autonomous self-government in ancient religious communities, especially the Buddhist sangha (organized community of monks), and claims that even clan families often governed themselves through democratic “communal assembly. kula-sangha. In short, ancient India displayed “a strong democratic element” manifesting the power of persons and groups to arrange affairs without “autocratic interference” from hierarchical authority.
These autonomous persons and groups arranged their affairs not around mere self-interest, but rather with an eye always toward the spirit and quality of communities enveloping them. Each constituent entity saw its well-being inextricably linked with well-being of larger wholes. The nature of ancient Indian polity, therefore, was “complex communal freedom,” with:
each group unit of the community having its own natural existence and administering its own proper life and business, set off from the rest by a natural demarcation of its field and limits, but connected with the whole by well-understood relations, each a co-partner with the others in the powers and duties of the communal existence, executing with its own laws and rules, administering within its own proper limits, joining with the others in the discussion and the regulation of matters of a mutual or common interest and represent in some way and to the degree of its importance in the general assemblies of the kingdom or empire.
“Complex communal freedom” echoes Tocqueville’s “communal freedom,” describing participatory popular self-government in early America’s New England townships. The Tocquevillian flavor of Aurobindo’s “complex communal freedom ” may represent direct borrowing.
If the well-being of parts stems from that of the whole, the reverse is equally true. Social wholes have vitality precisely to the extent they preserve the integrity of smaller units, where the life of participatory community may thrive. Again, Aurobindo finds a model in ancient Indian civilization. The republican states of ancient India, he argues, fostered autonomy for groups and individuals within them. Meanwhile, the integrity and autonomy of the republican states themselves was preserved within confederations of states formed for purposes of defence, trade and cultural exchange. Reflecting on India’s republican age and similar periods elsewhere, Aurobindo concludes:
[T]he interesting periods of human life, the scenes in which it has been most richly lived and has left behind it the most precious fruits, were precisely those ages and countries in which humanity was able to organize itself in little independent centres acting intimately upon each other but not fused into a single unity.
Like Lenin’s vanguard of the proletariat, Aurobindo’s vanguard of the spirit seeks to make the masses responsive to the superior vision of an elite. Aurobindo bemoans the “unpreparedness, the unfitness of the society or of the common mind of man which is always the chief stumbling-block to progress
The idea presented here contains Aurobindo’s essential paradigm of social progress. It lies in the free and equal participation of individuals in groups and of groups in larger communities, where each participating entity retains its distinctive integrity and retains an atmosphere of free and equal participation within itself. Because free and equal participation thrives best in small-scale community, the task is to preserve small egalitarian communities while developing larger, more inclusive ones: “In the unification of human aggregates, this then is the problem, how the component units shall be subordinated to a new unity without their death and disappearance.”
It is difficult to achieve this. Creating and maintaining small egalitarian communities tends to conflict with the existence or creation of larger communities. The historical pattern has been for larger communities to consolidate themselves by stifling the integrity of smaller communities, adopting centralized and hierarchical arrangements at odds with the life of participatory community. Actual social evolution, thinks Aurobindo, tends to rest not on free and equal co-operation but instead upon subjugation and hierarchical exploitation.
Though this snuffing out of smaller communities may seem unfortunate, Aurobindo sees it as dialectically necessary. For all their virtues, smallscale democracies also display certain defects that bespeak their small size. One is that, despite considerable equality, those democracies also display much economic and gender inequality. Such disparity cannot be removed within limits of small-scale social organization. Their remedy can emerge only in a “complex and cumbrous fashion,” through achievement of more powerful forms of social organization. This achievement occurs through the expensive dialectical process of expanded hierarchy, centralization, and exploitation. A second defect of small communities lies in the perpetual warfare among them. This defect demands that more inclusive communities develop, even at the cost of stifling the vitality and character of smaller ones.
This effacement of lesser communities, though dialectically necessary, is far from ideal. Much better would be preservation or restoration of vital small communities within larger, more embracing ones. Such lesser communities enhance the well-being both of the individuals within them and of the wider communities embracing them. Between any social “totality” and the individual persons that are its “constituent units,” there should stand “intermediary unities” without which “there can be no full development either of the totality or of the units.” Individuals require the tangible self-fulfillment of intimate community, not just the more transcendent selffulfillment found in wider communities. Communities meanwhile, require not only the raw energy of individuals but also the concentrated and magnified energy of various subcommunities. Aurobindo’s discussion of these “intermediary unities” recalls discussions of “secondary groups” and “voluntary associations” in Western thinkers like Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Laski.
Aurobindo finds in history at best only flawed approximations of his social ideal. The ideal itself stands as some as-yet-unrealized harmony among three distinguishable social levels:
The social evolution of the human race is necessarily a development of the relations between three constant factors, individuals, communities of various sorts and mankind Each seeks its own fulfillment, but each is compelled to develop them not independently but in relation to the others.
Because the dominant pattern of social evolution has been eclipse of lesser communities within construction of higher ones, Aurobindo sees danger as well as promise in humanity’s movement toward wider forms of community. He urges that future moves toward wider community combine consciously with dialectical recovery of past principles of community: active, intimate and participatory life patterns. He speaks, for example, of need to “re-create village organization” in India. Village communities, he argues, have been steamrolled by British rule, but this destruction could pave the way for recreation on a higher plane. Aurobindo therefore speaks of recreated “village communities” not solely as ends in themselves, but also as bases and models for the achievement of active “democratic” community in India at large:
The organization of our villages is an indispensable work to which we must immediately set our hands, but we must be careful so to organize them as to make them feel that they are imperfect parts of a single national unity, and dependent at every turn on the co-operation first of the district, secondly, of the province, and finally of the nation.
A notion of dialectical recovery seems to lie also behind Aurobindo’s scattered pronouncements on caste. Like Vivekananda and Das, Aurobindo defends ancient caste as a “socialistic institution” with a “spiritual object” and a “moral basis,” in which there was fundamentally “no inequality. ” The value of caste lay in its application of “complex communal freedom” to the division of labor. Aurobindo writes of internally democratic and autonomous castes co-operating with each other on free and roughly equal footing in overall social governance. In another positive feature, caste subordinates the “material” considerations of members to a “spiritual and moral” emphasis on the “common good.” With time, caste has unfortunately degenerated into anti-socialist and anti-democratic hierarchy. Aurobindo therefore calls for its “transformation” in the true spirit of Hinduism and socialism, so as “to fulfill its essential and permanent object under the changed conditions of modern times.” Beyond alluding to the “pliable self-adapting democratic distribution of function,” he provides no detail as to what this transformation of caste might be.
RECONCILING PRODUCTION AND PARTICIPATORY COMMUNITY
Aurobindo finds modern Western society lacking when measured against his “subjective” view of human nature and his ideal of participatory community. He first attacks capitalist democracy, which he portrays as the hierarchical social dominance of economic elites, despite egalitarian formalities of democratic politics. Capitalist democracy is less a community of free and equal participants than a veiled order of exploitation. An asocial egoism dominates life, checked only by the “ordered conflict” of the market. The market is irrational, thinks Aurobindo, even on economic grounds. It engenders wasteful production and fails to abolish poverty, tending instead to engender long-run depression and stagnation. He deplores the tendency of capital to consolidate in ever more concentrated form.
According to Aurobindo, socialism promises to abolish the “curse of Capitalism” and its consequent exploitation, waste, poverty and stagnation. It will do this through state ownership and control of the economy, a step forward in both equity and rationality. He praises the early Soviet Revolution for its “astonishing” achievements, laying the “initial basis of a new type of society,” in the midst of grave internal and external challenges. In the consolidation of state power, however, he sees a threat to freedom and diversity. The asocial egoism and anarchy of capitalism yields to a repugnant collectivist uniformity. The life of active individuality in participatory community finds no home there, though barriers of economic hierarchy are levelled. Socialism constructs its own power hierarchy, embodied in a centralized state hostile to all lesser centers of power and activity. Aurobindo admits the possible emergence of guild socialism or other forms of democratic socialism that would protect freedom and diversity by dispersing power broadly through society. Far more likely, he insists, is that socialism will mean triumph of the bureaucratic central state.
Conventional Western socialism, thinks Aurobindo, suffers from the same “objective” view of human nature that poisons capitalist democracy. It understands humans only in their outward, material aspect, not in their inward “subjective” or spiritual one. This engenders a bias toward conceiving human well-being in terms of institutional arrangements and economic mechanisms. State socialism, though it achieves a higher rationality in these respects and even perhaps because it does so, embodies only a skewed version of human well-being. It modifies but cannot replace or transcend the culture it inherits from capitalism, a culture of “economism,” that imagines human well-being as the more and more rationalized satisfaction of material desire.
Aurobindo sees an alternative to Western socialism in the “resurgence of Asia,” representing “the emergence of a new and as yet unforeseen principle”. Asian culture and India in particular, he argues, begins to incubate a “spiritualized democracy.” This seems to mean evangelizing throughout society the “spiritual and inner” achievements of gnostic elites, turning elite insight into an active social force. Defeat of capitalism and imperialism may lie in alliance between this spiritualized democracy and Western socialism. Beyond this, alliance may become synthesis, ushering in a regime higher than socialism. Aurobindo’s conception of Indian spirituality as imminent and redemptive world-historical force typifies modern Indian thought.
Aurobindo believes that recovery of active individuality and participatory community will depend on developing a post-socialist “subjective” sensibility, in which various aspects of Selfhood recognize and seek their well-being in the well-being of others. That sensibility will allow movement toward a stateless anarchy akin to Marxist notions of the “withering away of the state.” Anarchy will transcend socialism by recovering the freedom and diversity that socialism excludes, while consolidating socialism’s equality, unity and economic rationality. The result will be a “free equality founded upon spontaneous co-operation.” Aurobindo explains the evolution he envisions by way of the French Revolutionary slogan: liberty, equality, fraternity. If liberty lies with capitalism and equality with socialism, fraternity lies with anarchism. Fraternity transcends the apparent antinomy between liberty and equality and reconciles the two in a principle of active free collaboration among equals toward a shared well-being. Fraternity is the principle of participatory community. Aurobindo envisions post-socialist anarchy as the dialectical recovery and universalization of participatory community.
There is nothing startling in Aurobindo’s suspicion of state-centered socialism, nor in his alternative vision of a regime embodying a universalized principle of “free agreement and cooperation.” The vision resembles Marx’s vision of communism, ushered in by the perfection of institutions under socialism. It is often noted that Marx, though comprehensive in analyzing capitalist production, offers scant discussion of productive arrangements in the post-capitalist future. Marx finds such speculation pointless and trusts that once capitalism disappears through socialization of productive property, details of appropriate arrangements will emerge in light of various unforeseeable contingencies.
There may seem to be some wisdom in refusing to build castles in the air while history is unfolding and pressing tasks lie at hand. But it is hard to see how transformative social action can long or wisely proceed without some reasonable theories of workable institutional forms to pursue. By dreaming of the communist revolution as an all-encompassing salvational moment while by-passing discussion of post-capitalist productive arrangements, Marxism ironically makes itself a form of religion pursuing a version of pure religious ideology. Revolution represents humanity’s spiritual redemption. We needn’t worry about details of actual productive arrangements. They will emerge from redemptive insight once the revolution triumphs.
On this count, Aurobindo offers no more than Marx and perhaps somewhat less. There is one dense passage in The Human Cycle, however, in which he attempts to discuss production in the anarchist regime. The anarchist ideal, he writes, could imply either of two productive systems, which he calls “Stateless Communism” and “communalism.” Stateless Communism means a highly-developed productive system operating on “the large and complex scale necessitated by modern life.” As in Marx, Stateless Communism is a “free co-operative communism” in which all of production and society exist as “a unified life where the labor and property of all is there for the benefit of all.” By communalism, Aurobindo seems to mean a low-productivity economy, centered around independent owner-producers, each contributing the “surplus of his labour and acquisitions…without demur for the benefit of all.” This contribution occurs freely and spontaneously, each person exercising the “just freedom of his individuality.”
Neither Stateless Communism nor communalism, writes Aurobindo, can be regarded as realistic. Stateless Communism is unrealistic because no complex highly-developed system can operate without “governmental force.” Hence, the anarchist ideal cannot lie in a unified high-productivity system. It might then be thought that anarchist “free agreement and co-operation” might lie in a low-productivity system of spontaneous sharing: a radical altruism renouncing the advantages of high productivity. Aurobindo contends, however, that such a vision posits an “impossible self-abnegation.” No worthwhile system, he indicates, can be based on overly severe self-abnegation. Though he endorses asceticism, Aurobindo cautions against making it too rigorous. That would risk sapping the bodily vigor animating all activity.
Hence Aurobindo rejects two views on how to embody the anarchist principle of “free agreement and co-operation.” The trouble is that he offers no alternative. The anarchist regime, he insists, requires a “deeper brotherhood,” a “yet unfound law of love,” but he does not clarify how the regime will produce.
Much of Aurobindo’s thought turns on notions that not only society but human nature itself is involved in a vast process of evolution. The human spirit evolves in history from animal to divine, just as individual persons may so evolve in their private spiritual journeys. The anarchist regime, he suggests, awaits the “future evolution of the race,” in which humanity’s animal aspects will give way to a “new form of life nearer to the divine.” Aurobindo hints that such highly-evolved creatures will find no need to produce at all because they will somehow live lives of spontaneous abundance, dialectically recovering early life form capacities in a sort of spiritual photosynthesis. He makes this hint explicit not in his social philosophy but elsewhere, in a scenario of humanity’s future evolution:
There would have to be a change in the operative processes of the material organs themselves and, it may well be, in their very constitution and their importance; they could not be allowed to impose their limitations imperatively on the new physical life. The will might control the organs that deal with food, safeguard automatically the health…substitute subtler processes or draw in strength and substance from the universal life-force so that the body could maintain for a long time its own strength and substance without loss or waste, remaining thus with no need of substance by material aliments, and yet continue a strenuous action with no fatigue or pause for sleep or repose… Conceivably, one might rediscover and re-establish at the summit of the evolution of life the phenomenon we see at its base, the power to draw from all around it the means of sustenance and self-renewal.
Aurobindo imagines bodily needs transcended not through asceticism but through evolution. As indicated by The Life Divine, his late-career work of mystical philosophy, he seems to take such projections of trans-human existence rather seriously. They are not much help in solving problems of actual human beings. In certain moments, he carefully stipulates that humanity should be secured in its “material existence,” in order for a worthwhile regime to emerge. Moreover, his discussions of capitalism, socialism, and anarchism imply that modes of production are key to possibilities for a better society.
Elsewhere, however, productive organization seems only marginally relevant. It is far from clear what connection, if any, Aurobindo sees between forming the anarchist regime and developing any particular system for production. Far more critical than production, he insists, is to create a spiritual comradeship which is the expression of an inner realization of oneness. Just when he shifts from analysis to prescription, Aurobindo abandons all focus on production and retreats to pure religious ideology. For anyone who is skeptical of transcending needs for production, finding a system compatible with “free agreement and cooperation will continue to be a crucial issue, one on which Aurobindo offers little help.
RELIGION OF HUMANITY
Aurobindo’s overall religious views can be seen as an extrapolation from his nationalist religious views. Just as the nation represents Selfhood, realized through Advaitic insight and self-sacrifice, humanity at large represents Selfhood on a still more universal level. Aurobindo imagines an evolutionary trajectory from lesser to greater religious universality, on which lesser universalities are subsumed and transcended but not destroyed or devalued. Nationalist religion must, therefore, ultimately find and take its proper place within a wider “religion of humanity.”
Aurobindo posits a “religion of humanity” as glue of a world community under the anarchist principle of “free agreement and cooperation. This religion of humanity is already afoot in the world, he thinks, rooted in eighteenth-century rationalism and formulated dogmatically in Positivism. (He does not mention Comte, though that is probably his reference.) It finds expression in diverse modern ideas and movements. Many progressive developments stem from this religion, which has “encouraged everywhere the desire of freedom, put a curb on oppression and greatly minimised its more brutal expressions. This religion, however, so far looks nowhere nearly powerful enough to eradicate oppression. Further progress requires that it become “more explicit, insistent and categorically imperative.”
The task of this religion of humanity is to eradicate “human egoism,” both the “egoism of the individual” and the “egoism of class and nation.” Individual wrongdoing and social oppression both exemplify the same fundamental ill, egoism, and require the same remedy, a religion of humanity. Can prevailing forms of that religion measure up to the task? Prevailing forms of the religion of humanity, Aurobindo argues, suffer from their overly outward nature. They appeal to shallower “intellectual” and “sentimental” aspects of human being, not to its “centre,” which is “Spirit.” Because intellect and sentiment are only “instruments” of humanity’s spiritual center, a profound religion of humanity must press beyond them into that center. In other words, the religion of humanity’s orientation has been too “objective” and needs to become more “subjective.” It must de-emphasize “institutions” and the “external machinery of society” and stress realizing the “secret Spirit.”
This “spiritual religion of humanity,” cannot mean a religion in the usual sense: “a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite.” It must instead mean a “growing realization that there is a…divine Reality, in which we are all one…a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life.” In a word, the true religion of humanity, according to Aurobindo, is Advaitic insight on the non-duality of Selfhood.
He sketches out the practice of such a religion only vaguely:
There must be too a discipline and a way of salvation in accordance with this religion, that is to say, a means by which it can be developed by each man within himself, so that it may be developed in the life of the race.
Aurobindo seems to envision a personal religious practice of cultivating Advaitic insight. Other than calling it a “discipline,” he does not specify what this would be: deep meditation perhaps. He makes no mention whatever of communal practices, whether “practical” or “religious” that might stimulate or reinforce Advaitic insight.
Aurobindo struggles to demonstrate social relevance in the new Advaitic religion. He responds to suspicion that a new religion might seem an outworn approach to alleviating social ills. Advaitic insight and religious knowledge generally, he admits, have been unduly confined to “the life of the individual only,” never properly applied to “society itself.” As applied to society, on the other hand, religion has forever been distorted by outward and mechanical elements like “Church,” “priesthood.” “ceremonies,” “creeds,” and “dogmas.” Aurobindo concludes that “this false socialisation of religion has always been the chief cause of its failure to regenerate mankind.”
Less clear than what Aurobindo would not do is precisely what he would do. He criticizes Advaita as insufficiently social, yet criticizes society-oriented religions as insufficiently subjective. The task, apparently is to develop a religion simultaneously subjective and social. Aurobindo’s thoughts on how to do this, however, provoke only puzzlement.
Humanity’s new religion should not encrust itself in any system of practice or organization. Its proximate aim should be establishing what Aurobindo calls a “true inner theocracy,” to evangelize society but not to dominate it. This “theocracy” is a kind of religious order or sangha, no an elite consisting at first of a “limited number of individuals” with superior spirituality. This new sangha will teach and lead the rest of humanity toward higher spiritual life. Aurobindo does not spell out how the sangha shall do this. Because he repudiates any organizational system, he does not even clarify how members of the sangha will or should operate together.
Like Lenin’s vanguard of the proletariat, Aurobindo’s vanguard of the spirit seeks to make the masses responsive to the superior vision of an elite. Aurobindo bemoans the “unpreparedness, the unfitness of the society or of the common mind of man which is always the chief stumbling-block to progress.” Elite spiritual action will ensure triumph of “subjective” sensibility in human affairs. Then will come application of “subjective principles” to social, political and economic questions.
Though he acknowledges such questions as critical to creating a better society, he cannot specify what “subjective principles might actually say about them.
With his notion of participatory community, Aurobindo conveys a vision of human well-being lived out in the spiritual atmosphere of collaborative activity. Unfortunately, however, he gives us scant picture what sorts of collaborative activity we might seek.