How Sri Aurobindo's theory of human cycles applies to the contemporary world and what does the future look like for the east and the west.
Dr. Ramesh Bijlani is a medical doctor, educationist, writer, inspirational speaker, teacher, scientist, and above all a person committed to using his unique blend of talents for touching the hearts and lives of his fellow beings. He has written extensively for children, adults and health care professionals: he has seventeen published books to his credit. He has been staying and working at Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Delhi Branch since 2007.
Sri Aurobindo, by writing almost single-handed for the monthly journal, the Arya, created in just six years (1914-1920) a body of English literature based on the Indian spiritual tradition but global in its scope, which remains unsurpassed to this day in both quantity and quality. What he wrote in the Arya is the source of most of his major works. One of these works, The Human Cycle, appeared initially in the Arya under the title The Psychology of Social Development during the years 1916-18. In these articles, Sri Aurobindo examined the influence of the collective psyche of a society on history, and came to the conclusion that societies typically go through a cyclic process in their social development.
"The renascence of India is as inevitable as the rising of tomorrow’s sun, and the renascence of a great nation of three hundred millions with so peculiar a temperament , such unique traditions and ideas of life, so powerful an intelligence and so great a mass of potential energies cannot but be one of the most formidable phenomena of the modern world." - Sri Aurobindo (The ideal of human unity)
The successive periods that constitute the cycle were named by Sri Aurobindo as the symbolic age, the age of convention, the age of reason, and the subjective age. The symbolic age is religious in character, and symbols and symbolic rituals dominate life. The society understands what the symbols stand for, and therefore the rituals make sense to people. The social order is firm, but social forms are lax. The religious practices have not yet hardened into rigid conventions. However, with the passage of time, only the religious practices continue, but the significance underlying the symbols is forgotten. The rituals become rigid, their practice becomes mechanical, and few understand what the practices signify. In general, the society becomes highly conventional in its approach, and forms subordinate the underlying spirit. The courage to question or oppose the prevalent norms more or less disappears from the society. This is the age of convention. But even during the age of convention, a few individuals, whose critical faculties survive in spite of the social milieu, do question the conventions. They want to know the ‘why’ behind the conventions, and refuse to follow the herd. They have to pay the price for swimming against the current, but the innate human urge for freedom eventually breaks through all barriers. When the number of rebellious and revolutionary original thinkers crosses a threshold, they start having an impact on the social attitudes. That is how a society moves from the age of convention into the age of reason. The age of reason is a glorious period, a period of healthy debate, a period of co-existence of conflicting philosophies. The encouragement that the spirit of enquiry and freedom of thought receive during the age of reason leads to rapid growth of science and technology. However, while the society, in general, places rationality on a pedestal, a few individuals also start seeing the limitations of reason. All the knowledge gained by the application of reason fails to reduce evil and injustice in society, and therefore suffering continues to characterize human life. Realization of the limits of reason is the beginning of the subjective age. The subjective age does not throw away or minimize the gains of reason but adds a non-rational dimension to life. Whatever is non-rational is not necessarily to be shunned because while reason is a powerful tool, it is neither the source of infallible knowledge nor the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong. Therefore, to use Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, whatever is non-rational can be either infra-rational or supra-rational. Raw unrefined emotions are infra-rational, and their unbridled play can be disastrous. But conscious contact with the dynamic aspect of our soul gives us access to knowledge which is beyond the reach of reason. The dynamic aspect of our soul does not need the crutch of reason to know what is true or what is right. Therefore, working in the light of our soul, although non-rational, is supra-rational, and more reliable than using reason alone. This realization comes to a society when it has more or less exhausted the potential of reason, and as a result it enters the subjective age of spiritual wisdom.
Where is India today?
India has gone through the cycle, probably more than once, in its long and chequered history. For example, the Vedic age was its symbolic age, and the Upanishadic age its subjective supra-rational age, but coming to relatively recent history, India seems to have entered the age of convention about a thousand years ago. Before it had the time to graduate to the age of reason, it was enslaved, partly because of the degeneration that had set in during the age of convention. Slavery promotes the instinct to preserve one’s identity, and that can be most easily and safely done by sticking to conventions. Conventions promote conformism, and that thwarts progress but all the same provides stability. The result was that through its long spell of slavery, India got stuck in the age of convention. That is reflected in many of our common spontaneous expressions, which we take as perfectly natural and reasonable, such as “everybody says so, and hence…”, “everybody does that, and hence…”, “X (an authority figure) says so, and hence…”, “X (an authoritative book) says so, and hence…”, and worst of all, “We are A/B/C, and therefore we have to do this or that”, where A/B/C may be Hindu/Muslim/Christian or Punjabi/Gujarati/Tamilian. It is the suffocating dominance of convention, authority and habit that made Tagore express his anguish in his famous poem in Gitanjali, “Where the mind is without fear… Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit … Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”. Sri Aurobindo, although a lover of the spiritual culture of India, was criticial of its recent manifestations. He wrote, “Our civilization has got ossified, our dharma a bigotry of externals, our spirituality a faint glimmer of light or a momentary wave of intoxication” (Nadkarni 2006, p. 84).
Advancing towards reason
Although we are still far from the “heaven of freedom” that Tagore dreamt of, there are hopeful signs of the rebels driven by reason making their presence felt. Several factors have contributed to this shift. First and foremost, the political freedom that we earned in 1947 was a milestone in this direction. Secondly, the partition of the country that accompanied the freedom, with all its disastrous fallouts, perhaps contributed to the erosion of conventions. For those who were uprooted from their home and hearth by partition, the first priority was bread and shelter, not preserving conventions. Difficult circumstances force us to use our head, because the stability inherent in sticking to accustomed ways has been shattered anyway. The other factors that have contributed to the on-going transition from convention to reason are economic growth, and the increasing role that media play in moulding social attitudes. Economic growth gives one, education; and two, the leisure to think, reflect, experiment and explore. The media have helped in bringing audiovisual material from different parts of the country as well as the world within the reach of even people living in villages and urban slums. The result is that even those whose material means are meagre, whose social life is convention-ridden, and whose access to formal education is limited, are exposed to how people live and think elsewhere. As a result, their younger generation feels the urge to reason, and to break through the prison of conventions. They not only want to study and travel, they also want to marry whomsoever they like.
Some of the visible signs of the transition from the age of convention to that of reason are first, the mushrooming of literary and artistic creativity, as happened during the scholastic age of Europe in the thirteenth century. Secondly, there is proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and initiatives, manned by young people, many of whom have given up lucrative careers with the intention of liberating the society from one social evil or another. Thirdly, marriages across caste and creed divisions are on the rise. Finally, the courage to question authority is much in evidence; even godmen are being questioned.
Where is the West today?
Skipping the details, Western Europe entered the age of convention during the Roman Empire, and remained stuck in it through the dark ages, arbitrarily fixed by Charles Singer from 400 AD to 1543 AD, a period of more than a thousand years. A glimmer of hope appeared during the scholastic age in the thirteenth century. The scholars of the 13th century were still subservient to the twin authority of antiquity and religion. But there was revival of learning, which laid the foundations of the European Renaissance. The most progressive author of this period was Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who did not hesitate to criticize authority, and paid the price for his audacity by spending many years in prison. It was rebels like him who led Europe from the age of convention to the age of reason. Charles Singer has chosen 1543 as the year of the onset of the European Renaissance. The justification for such a precise date is that during that year appeared two publications of great importance. One was a book on Astronomy by Copernicus, and the other a book on Anatomy by Vesalius. Both these books, for the first time after more than a thousand years, dared place greater reliance on observation than on authority. Science had at last managed to loosen the grip of the ancient classics. The spirit of enquiry could once again breathe freely without the Church clipping its nose. The freedom of thought ushered in by the Renaissance led to the developments in science, which led to the growth of technology, which in turn culminated in the Industrial Revolution. The result was that by the nineteenth century, the lives of those who benefitted the most from the Industrial Revolution became very comfortable, and it was the fond hope of all well-meaning people that science and technology would finally solve all the problems of human existence. But that did not happen: the degree of evil, injustice and suffering did not decline one bit. The response to this failure was that, Reason, the instrument that had led to the development of science and technology, was pressed into service to solve the problems of human existence by devising new systems of education and new forms of government. While democracy, socialism and communism are all based on logic and good intentions, none of these made any dent on human misery. The finest product of the application of reason to human affairs was humanism. However, even this rational code of ethics failed to diminish the evil, injustice, cruelty and suffering in the world. The reason behind these failures, according to Sri Aurobindo, was that the level of human consciousness continued to be low. Therefore, even the best system, when put into action by human beings with an ego-driven mental consciousness, does not achieve the intended results. Irrespective of the system, power gets concentrated in the hands of relatively few, leaving the rest at their mercy. Those who have the power, somehow or the other manage to suppress and deprive those who are powerless because at the present level of human consciousness, personal greed motivates human actions. Further, man’s well-developed intellect manages to find even a justification for his actions. However, all these failed experiments were necessary and served a purpose. It was because of these failures that when Europe, and the West in general, had exhausted the potential of reason in solving the basic problems of human existence, these societies started looking at ancient Indian wisdom. That is how Europe entered the subjective supra-rational age in the twentieth century.
How does the past explain the present?
Looking at history in terms of the cyclic process visualized by Sri Aurobindo explains many common observations. It explains the high receptivity of the Western world to ancient Indian wisdom. Yoga and Buddhism are the two most popular export products of India today. It explains the movement of the Western world from conventional religions towards spirituality. The lead article in the 12 March 2012 issue of the Time magazine was ‘10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life’. One of these ‘ideas’, according to the author, Amy Sullivan, is ‘The Rise of the Nones’. ‘The nones’ is the name that social scientists give to those who declare that they have no affiliation to any organized religion. The nones are the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S., and are currently estimated to form 16 percent of the American population. The nones have rejected organized religion but believe in God, engage in spiritual conversation and prayer, and participate in humanitarian work. It also explains why Indian spiritual wisdom in general, and Sri Aurobindo in particular, is much better understood and put into action by the Western world than India itself. The West, having graduated from the age of reason to the supra-rational age, is ready to receive, or rather thirsty to pocket ancient Indian spiritual wisdom. Here is a sample: “Aurobindo is the greatest contemporary philosopher and great in the company of the greatest mystics of all time … … Because Aurobindo is in this world, the world is becoming able to express progressively unity and diversity instead of division, love instead of hatred, truth consciousness instead of falsehood, freedom instead of tyranny, immortality instead of death”, wrote Rev. E.E.F. Hill in 1949 (Nadkarni 2006, pp. 86-87). India, on the other hand, is struggling to come out of the shackles of convention, including those of the rituals and dogmas of conventional religion, in its march towards the age of reason. That is why, India does not seem to be ready to accept its own wisdom. “Our intelligentsia has been swearing by Darwin, Freud and Karl Marx but they have simply ignored Sri Aurobindo, one of the few independent thinkers that India produced in the 20th century, who dealt mainly with the same issues that these three thinkers did and in the light of whose writings we are better able to appreciate them because he presents the complete truth which each of these thinkers distorted in his own way”, wrote Dr. Mangesh Nadkarni (Nadkarni 2006, pp. 87-88). What we are willing to accept from our own tradition is also influenced by where we stand in the social cycle. “There are two types of Hinduisms”, wrote Sri Aurobindo, “one which takes its stand on the kitchen and seeks its Paradise by cleaning the body; another which seeks God, not through the cooking pot and the social convention, but in the soul. The latter is also Hinduism and it is a good deal older and more enduring than the other…” (Sri Aurobindo, 2005). It is because of our being stuck in the age of convention that today the Hinduism that is much in evidence is the one which is rooted in rituals rather than in Vedanta.
Where do we go from here?
In terms of recent history, we are where Europe was about seven hundred years ago. Does it mean that we have to wait that long to catch up, to appreciate and apply our own ancient wisdom? While it is true that history repeats itself, it does not repeat itself exactly. And, there are many reasons why we can expect to bridge the gap much faster. First, we do not have the type of conflict that Europe had between religion and science. Our indigenous spiritual tradition, Vedanta, is insight-based, and therefore gives the individual the freedom to explore and acquire his own insights. This freedom is so much in our DNA that it always leaves room for deviation from conventions. What we need is to use this freedom with conviction and logic. Secondly, developments in technology have made the world much smaller. Not only has that made it easier for the West to access Indian wisdom, it has also made it much easier for us to know the social transformation currently going on in the West, and to get influenced by it. Finally, since the West is looking up to India for solving the problems of human existence, we are under a global scanner. The contrast between our ancient ideals and our present practices is too glaring to be missed. Since we are being watched, the contrast will eventually shame us and compel us to give a better expression to our nation soul. If there is one thing that can accelerate the march of India from the age of convention to that of reason, and from there to the supra-rational age, it is good education. A thorough overhauling of our education system is essential for the next generation of Indians to live the wisdom that the world is importing from India.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision was futuristic, was deeply rooted in the evolutionary perspective, and encompassed the entire human race. He visualized that the mental consciousness, of which reason is the best tool, had reached its limits. The next leap in evolution would lead to a qualitatively different type of consciousness, which he termed supramental. While the mental consciousness creates the impression of division being the final reality, the supramental consciousness would be rooted in unity. The result would be a world full of love, peace and harmony. Ancient Indian wisdom is poised to play an important role in creating this new world. In that sense, India has already started playing the role of the world guru. But there is a difference between India being the world guru, and the Indians of today being the world guru. Indians would be entitled to the role of the world guru only if they practice the ancient spiritual wisdom that India has given to the world. The world is moving towards a higher consciousness. The motive force for the revolutionary change is ancient Indian wisdom. But the epicenter of the change is in the Western world. In the larger design of the Divine, it will make no difference. In that design there is no East and West; it is just one world and one human race. It is up to the Indians of today to decide how far we want to be a part of the revolution that is changing the very face of the human race.
"It would be a tragic irony of fate if India were to throw away her spiritual heritage at the very moment when in the rest of the world there is more and more a turning towards her for spiritual help and a saving Light. This must not and will surely not happen; but it cannot be said that the danger is not there. … … after these long years of subjection and its cramping and impairing effects a great inner as well as outer liberation and change, a vast inner and outer progress is needed if we are to fulfill India’s true destiny." - Sri Aurobindo, in his message to the nation through Andhra University in 1948.
Sri Aurobindo. The Human Cycle. The Ideal of Human Unity. War and Self Determination. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2nd edition, 1970.
Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism. (Compiled by Satadal). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2005.
Mangesh Nadkarni. India’s Spiritual Destiny: Its Inevitability and Potentiality. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Society, in association with UBS Publishers, 2006.