History is commonly understood as “the study of man’s dealings with other men and the adjustments of working relations between human groups”1. It may also be viewed as “the discipline that studies the chronological record of events (as affecting a nation or people), based on a critical examination of source materials and usually presenting an explanation of their causes”.2 Can we really confine the meaning of history to such narrow definitions or is there another broader and deeper way of looking at it? Yes, history can be viewed in a much deeper and broader way than as a set of straight narrations of events which occurred during a course of time. The modern as well as the traditional historians dwell mostly on the outer happenings and neglect almost completely the psychological elements – the base on which the history of a nation should be built and studied. The outer events and facts have their own place in history, but they should not be taken as all important and sufficient in themselves or even as the most important. This is the great mistake that most historians invariably make. They focus mainly on the outer facts and ignore or just give a secondary importance to the psychological element. This is because, as Sri Aurobindo says, “Modern Science, obsessed with the greatness of its physical discoveries and the idea of the sole existence of Matter, has long attempted to base upon physical data even its study of Soul and Mind and of those workings of Nature in man and animal in which a knowledge of psychology is as important as any of the physical sciences. Its very psychology founded itself upon physiology and the scrutiny of the brain and nervous system. It is not surprising therefore that in history and sociology attention should have been concentrated on the external data, laws, institutions, rites, customs, economic factors and developments, while the deeper psychological elements so important in the activities of a mental, emotional, ideative being like man have been very much neglected. This kind of science would explain history and social development as much as possible by economic necessity or motive, – by economy understood in its widest sense. There are even historians who deny or put aside as of a very subsidiary importance the working of the idea and the influence of the thinker in the development of human institutions.”3
Such a tendency of materialistic historians to simplify and reduce the problem to simple material formulas is also due to the fact that “The Surfaces of life are easy to understand; their laws, characteristic movements, practical utilities are ready to our hand and we can seize on them and turn them to account with a sufficient facility and rapidity. But they do not carry us very far. They suffice for an active superficial life from day to day, but they do not solve the great problems of existence. On the other hand, the knowledge of life’s profundities, its potent secrets, its great, hidden, all-determining laws is exceedingly difficult to us. We have found no plummet that can fathom these depths; they seem to us a vague, indeterminate movement, a profound obscurity from which the mind recoils willingly to play with the fret and foam and facile radiances of the surface. Yet it is these depths and their unseen forces that we ought to know if we would understand existence; on the surface we get only Nature’s secondary rules and practical bye-laws which help us to tide over the difficulties of the moment and to organise empirically without understanding them her continual transitions.
Nothing is more obscure to humanity or less seized by its understanding, whether in the power that moves it or the sense of the aim towards which it moves, than its own communal and collective life. Sociology does not help us, for it only gives us the general story of the past and the external conditions under which communities have survived. History teaches us nothing; it is a confused torrent of events and personalities or a kaleidoscope of changing institutions. We do not seize the real sense of all this change and this continual streaming forward of human life in the channels of Time. What we do seize are current or recurrent phenomena, facile generalisations, partial ideas. We talk of democracy, aristocracy and autocracy, collectivism and individualism, imperialism and nationalism, the State and the commune, capitalism and labour; we advance hasty generalisations and make absolute systems which are positively announced today only to be abandoned perforce tomorrow; we espouse causes and ardent enthusiasms whose triumph turns to an early disillusionment and then forsake them for others, perhaps for those that we have taken so much trouble to destroy. For a whole century mankind thirsts and battles after liberty and earns it with a bitter expense of toil, tears and blood; the century that enjoys without having fought for it turns away as from a puerile illusion and is ready to renounce the depreciated gain as the price of some new good. And all this happens because our whole thought and action with regard to our collective life is shallow and empirical; it does not seek for, it does not base itself on a firm, profound and complete knowledge. The moral is not the vanity of human life, of its ardours and enthusiasms and of the ideals it pursues, but the necessity of a wiser, larger, more patient search after its true law and aim. Today the ideal of human unity is more or less vaguely making its way to the front of our consciousness. The emergence of an ideal in human thought is always the sign of an intention in Nature, but not always of an intention to accomplish; sometimes it indicates only an attempt which is predestined to temporary failure. For Nature is slow and patient in her methods. She takes up ideas and half carries them out, then drops them by the wayside to resume them in some future era with a better combination. She tempts humanity, her thinking instrument, and tests how far it is ready for the harmony she has imagined; she allows and incites man to attempt and fail, so that he may learn and succeed better another time. Still the ideal, having once made its way to the front of thought, must certainly be attempted, and this ideal of human unity is likely to figure largely among the determining forces of the future; for the intellectual and material circumstances of the age have prepared and almost impose it, especially the scientific discoveries which have made our earth so small that its vastest kingdoms seem now no more than the provinces of a single country.”4
We approach the history of the Vedic Age for a profound understanding of the true law and aim of the individual and the collective existence.
(I) The True Law and Aim of the Individual and the Collective Existence
It would seem safe to assume that all individuals and collectivities, knowingly or unknowingly, strive after their greatest possible fulfilment. How successful they will be in this striving depends critically on the depth of their perception and understanding of the true law and aim of the individual and the collective existence. Therefore, all human pursuits undertaken for the sake of a greater knowledge and awareness of themselves and their surroundings must give utmost importance to such an understanding. The study of history must also have this as its most important aim.
The lines on which one’s search for the true law and aim of human existence will be pursued will depend to a large extent on the view one takes of what constitutes a human being and his fulfilment. All past human approaches to this problem can be broadly grouped under the following three headings:(1) The Materialistic View or Approach (2) The Traditional Ascetic Approach (3) The Integral Spiritual Approach
(i) The Materialistic View or Approach
The human individual is a complex being – composed of many apparently contradictory elements and planes of being. According to the traditional Indian view, man is a soul enclosed into five sheaths – Annamaya (physical), Pranamaya (vital), Manomaya (mental), Vigyanmaya (supramental) and Anandmaya (blissful). These five sheaths enable him to live on five corresponding planes. The physical, the vital and the mental sheaths are generally called the lower sheaths. The other two are called the higher sheaths which although they co-exist with the lower sheaths and are a part of the complete system, but, not being well formed in human beings, are superconscient to them.
Therefore, to an ordinary consciousness, man is constituted only by the three lower sheaths which are the only ones fairly well formed in him. The materialist does not admit the reality of the soul and to him man is constituted solely by his physical, vital (life) and mental sheaths. He accepts only the scientific account of physical development of things in matter and the law of development of life and mind on the basis of matter. To him matter is the only substance and the fundamental reality. He affirms that the physical senses are the sole means of knowledge. In this view the sole source of knowledge is the mind which is critically dependent on the proper functioning of the human brain – a fine flower of the material evolution.
The materialist gives utmost importance to the preservation and maintenance of the material body and the satisfaction of its animal appetites and only a secondary importance to the satisfaction of man’s two higher sheaths – the vital and the mental. The organisation of a materialistic society is such that all the attainments of man’s higher parts are put – overwhelmingly – at the service of his physical being constituted by the material body, the physical vital and the physical mind. In such a view of the law and aim of human existence the efficiency of a collective existence is judged by its capacity to provide for the greatest possible fulfillment – in this limited sense – of the individuals constituting it.
A historian who looks at history from this point of view will try to judge past cultures and civilizations on the basis of their achievements in the outer fields – the ones alone that he is able to perceive and observe in the historical records. For what we get from history depends entirely on how we look at it and what we are looking for. So, when one looks at history from this point of view, one discovers, mostly the external material and social and political dimensions of human life and the degree to which it has been able to make advancements in science and technology, art and craft, literature, philosophy and ethics. When a historian subscribes to – as most modern historians do – this view of things, he is only superficially – if at all – able to look at the ideas or psychological motives behind these endeavours. Anything deeper – the deeper religious or spiritual motives – would entirely escape his notice, for, to this view of life, man is always seeking solely for some sort of fulfillment and satisfaction of his outer being and his history is the account of his efforts in this direction.
(ii) The Traditional Ascetic View
This view starts from the other end of the spectrum. As the materialistic point of view insists on matter as the sole reality, the traditional ascetic view insists on the pure spirit or soul as the sole reality – the only thing free from death, disease and ignorance. This view takes man beyond the confinements of the outer fulfillment to something greater and vaster. It perceives that there is a greater thing, the inmost or the real being – not this life, mind and body but the divinity within – the Spirit and these other things are only veils of this true thing and are in essence only a maya i.e. without any substantial reality. The supreme purpose of life is to escape from the bewilderment and illusion of outer life by identifying with this supreme truth of one’s being. This temporal world in this view is only a frame for experience and the senses the instruments of experience. To pursue after the Spirit is the sole thing necessary because that alone would enable man to finally get out from this world of maya and dualities and their accompanying suffering into some ineffable reality and bliss of the Spirit.
When viewing history from this perspective one would be interested only in finding and studying the records of the heroic deeds and the ways and disciplines undertaken by the shining individuals of the race in their pursuit of this ascetic spiritual ideal. Like the materialist view this view will also limit history to an essential but a very narrow ambit of man’s life.
(iii) The Integral Spiritual Approach
In this approach the Spirit is not denied expression in the physical life and man is entitled to proceed towards the leading of a full life: by which is meant, obviously, not a life of blind subjection to the animal appetites of the physical being, but a life dedicated to the completest expression of the Spirit through all the three lower sheaths – the physical, the vital and the mental – which constitute almost entirely his existence for the material man. According to Sri Aurobindo the Vedic Age was characterized by the predominance of this approach which continued to dominate the Indian view of human life until the coming of the Buddha and Shankara. Inspite of the huge ascetic spiritual shadow cast by these two towering personalities, it has always continued as an independent undercurrent through all the ups and downs of the history of the Indian spiritual culture.
In our times this approach has found the most powerful and completest expression and support in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and a living expression in the practice of their system of yoga, called the Integral Yoga. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have added some great new vistas – the inevitability of the supramental manifestation and the establishment of the divine life upon earth – and have brought this approach to the forefront of the consciousness of the human elite. This approach harmonises the materialistic and the ascetic approaches by neglecting neither the Spirit nor the life in matter. It aims at the perfection of life in matter by the power of the Spirit culminating into the formula of a divine life in a divine body – a body no longer subject to death, disease and ignorance and therefore fit to be the material envelope of the Supramental Consciousness. In this view, “A spiritual evolution, an evolution of consciousness in Matter in a constant developing self-formation till the form can reveal the indwelling spirit, is . . the keynote, the central significant motive of the terrestrial existence. This significance is concealed at the outset by the involution of the Spirit, the Divine Reality, in a dense material Inconscience; a veil of Inconscience, a veil of insensibility of Matter hides the universal Consciousness-Force which works within it, so that the Energy, which is the first form the Force of creation assumes in the physical universe, appears to be itself inconscient and yet does the works of a vast occult Intelligence. The obscure mysterious creatrix ends indeed by delivering the secret consciousness out of its thick and tenebrous prison; but she delivers it slowly, little by little, in minute infinitesimal drops, in thin jets, in small vibrant concretions of energy and substance, of life, of mind, as if that were all she could get out through the crass obstacle, the dull reluctant medium of an inconscient stuff of existence. At first she houses herself in forms of Matter which appear to be altogether unconscious, then struggles towards mentality in the guise of living Matter and attains to it imperfectly in the conscious animal. This consciousness is at first rudimentary, mostly a half subconscious or just conscious instinct; it develops slowly till in more organised forms of living Matter it reaches its climax of intelligence and exceeds itself in Man, the thinking animal who develops into the reasoning mental being but carries along with him even at his highest elevation the mould of original animality, the dead weight of subconscience of body, the downward pull of gravitation towards the original Inertia and Nescience, the control of an inconscient material Nature over his conscious evolution, its power for limitation, its law of difficult development, its immense force for retardation and frustration. This control by the original Inconscience over the consciousness emerging from it takes the general shape of a mentality struggling towards knowledge but itself, in what seems to be its fundamental nature, an Ignorance. Thus hampered and burdened, mental man has still to evolve out of himself the fully conscious being, a divine manhood or a spiritual and supramental supermanhood which shall be the next product of the evolution. That transition will mark the passage from the evolution in the Ignorance to a greater evolution in the Knowledge, founded and proceeding in the light of the Superconscient and no longer in the darkness of the Ignorance and Inconscience.”5
When we view the present condition of humanity in this light it is apparent that, “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way. A structure of the external life has been raised up by man’s ever-active mind and life-will, a structure of an unmanageable hugeness and complexity, for the service of his mental, vital, physical claims and urges, a complex political, social, administrative, economic, cultural machinery, an organised collective means for his intellectual, sensational, aesthetic and material satisfaction. Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites. For no greater seeing mind, no intuitive soul of knowledge has yet come to his surface of consciousness which could make this basic fullness of life a condition for the free growth of something that exceeded it. This new fullness of the means of life might be, by its power for a release from the incessant unsatisfied stress of his economic and physical needs, an opportunity for the full pursuit of other and greater aims surpassing the material existence, for the discovery of a higher truth and good and beauty, for the discovery of a greater and diviner spirit which would intervene and use life for a higher perfection of the being: but it is being used instead for the multiplication of new wants and an aggressive expansion of the collective ego. At the same time Science has put at his disposal many potencies of the universal Force and has made the life of humanity materially one; but what uses this universal Force is a little human individual or communal ego with nothing universal in its light of knowledge or its movements, no inner sense or power which would create in this physical drawing together of the human world a true life unity, a mental unity or a spiritual oneness. All that is there is a chaos of clashing mental ideas, urges of individual and collective physical want and need, vital claims and desires, impulses of an ignorant life-push, hungers and calls for life satisfaction of individuals, classes, nations, a rich fungus of political and social and economic nostrums and notions, a hustling medley of slogans and panaceas for which men are ready to oppress and be oppressed, to kill and be killed, to impose them somehow or other by the immense and too formidable means placed at his disposal, in the belief that this is his way out to something ideal. The evolution of human mind and life must necessarily lead towards an increasing universality; but on a basis of ego and segmenting and dividing mind this opening to the universal can only create a vast pullulation of unaccorded ideas and impulses, a surge of enormous powers and desires, a chaotic mass of unassimilated and intermixed mental, vital and physical material of a larger existence which, because it is not taken up by a creative harmonising light of the spirit, must welter in a universalised confusion and discord out of which it is impossible to build a greater harmonic life. Man has harmonised life in the past by organised ideation and limitation; he has created societies based on fixed ideas or fixed customs, a fixed cultural system or an organic life-system, each with its own order; the throwing of all these into the melting pot of a more and more intermingling life and a pouring in of ever new ideas and motives and facts and possibilities call for a new, a greater consciousness to meet and master the increasing potentialities of existence and harmonise them. Reason and Science can only help by standardising, by fixing everything into an artificially arranged and mechanised unity of material life. A greater whole-being, whole-knowledge, whole-power is needed to weld all into a greater unity of whole-life.
A life of unity, mutuality and harmony born of a deeper and wider truth of our being is the only truth of life that can successfully replace the imperfect mental constructions of the past which were a combination of association and regulated conflict, an accommodation of egos and interests grouped or dovetailed into each other to form a society, a consolidation by common general life-motives, a unification by need and the pressure of struggle with outside forces. It is such a change and such a reshaping of life for which humanity is blindly beginning to seek, now more and more with a sense that its very existence depends upon finding the way. The evolution of mind working upon life has developed an organisation of the activity of mind and use of Matter which can no longer be supported by human capacity without an inner change.”6
An inner change can be brought about only by the development of that “…which society has most neglected, the spiritual element, the soul in man which is his true being. Even to have a healthy body, a strong vitality and an active and clarified mind and a field for their action and enjoyment, carries man no more than a certain distance; afterwards he flags and tires for want of a real self-finding, a satisfying aim for his action and progress. These three things do not make the sum of a complete manhood; they are means to an ulterior end and cannot be made for ever an aim in themselves. Add a rich emotional life governed by a well-ordered ethical standard, and still there is the savour of something left out, some supreme good which these things mean, but do not in themselves arrive at, do not discover till they go beyond themselves. Add a religious system and a widespread spirit of belief and piety, and still you have not found the means of social salvation. All these things human society has developed, but none of them has saved it from disillusionment, weariness and decay. The ancient intellectual cultures of Europe ended in disruptive doubt and sceptical impotence, the pieties of Asia in stagnation and decline.”7
The human civilization in its chequered evolution through the ages has never really been conscious of its true destiny – an ascension to a divine life in a divine body. After the Vedic age, the mind of the race has wavered fundamentally between the two extreme views of existence; what Sri Aurobindo has termed as the two negations: (i) the materialist’s denial of the spirit and, (ii) the ascetic’s refusal of life in matter.
“In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, – or of some of them, – it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world’s powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit. Nor has the intellect, which sought the solution of all problems in the one term of Matter, found satisfaction in the answer that it has received.”8
“The salvation of the human race lies in a more sane and integral development of the possibilities of mankind in the individual and in the community. The safety of Europe has to be sought in the recognition of the spiritual aim of human existence, otherwise she will be crushed by the weight of her own unillumined knowledge and soulless organisation. The safety of Asia lies in the recognition of the material mould and mental conditions in which that aim has to be worked out, otherwise she will sink deeper into the slough of despond of a mental and physical incompetence to deal with the facts of life and the shocks of a rapidly changing movement. It is not any exchange of forms that is required, but an interchange of regenerating impulses and a happy fusion and harmonising.”9
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have given humanity the integral spiritual ideal which harmonises East and West by rising above the two negations. It aims at the perfection of life in matter by the power of the Spirit – the essence of the whole striving of the Vedic seers which, though concealed deliberately, can be discovered with its unsurpassably rich, deep, varied and high expression in the Veda by anyone who approaches it with the right spirit and a background of a vast and high spiritual knowledge and experience. According to the Veda the only way out for man – the one and the only thing that can truly lift him beyond himself* – is to discover his soul and its soul force and instrumentation and replace by it both the mechanization of mind and the ignorance and disorder of his life-nature.
To approach history in the light of the integral spiritual ideal one needs to go behind appearances and look for the progressive manifestation of the spirit in the terrestrial nature which was also the essential preoccupation of the Veda. We shall attempt to study the Veda and the history of the Vedic Age in the light of this approach because we feel that this alone is really suited for this difficult task.
*Only the Supermind can do it. According to Sri Aurobindo, the idea of Supermind is to be found only in its principle in the Rig Veda and in its seed form in the Upanishads and is absent in the later Hindu tradition. The Vedic seers missed the secret of the descent of the Supramental Truth Consciousness in the terrestrial nature and thereby the secret of the physical immortality and the formula of a divine life upon the earth.References: 1. Majumdar, R.C. (ed) : The Vedic Age, Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, Mumbai, 1996; page 37 2. Britannica vol. 5 (15th ed., Micropedia, Ready Reference; page 949) 3. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 25, page 5 4. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 25, page 279-80 5. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 22, page 856-58 6. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 22, page 1090-92 7. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 25, page 224 8. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 21, page 11 9. Complete works of Sri Aurobindo 13, page 143-44