“This erring race of human beings dreams always of perfecting their environment by the machinery of government and society; but it is only by the perfection of the soul within that the outer environment can be perfected. What thou art within, that outside thee thou shalt enjoy; no machinery can rescue thee from the law of thy being.”1
A. The Problem: An Evolutionary Crisis Before Mankind
“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.”2
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.”3
B. The Present Socio-economic System and the Utilitarian Spirit
The whole modern socio-economic system is geared towards meeting only the vital and physical needs of man, for the material perfection and well-being has become the sole recognised Dharma of modern societies – all else being considered either a pretentious falsity or a thing of minor and dependent consequence. The overriding concern that the modern societies show for the fulfilment of the vital and the physical desires of man, and the prominent part that money plays in the fulfilment of such desires, has brought the economic science to the forefront. The economic science and its calculations confine themselves to only those parts of individual and social activities which are squared (or squarable) against the measuring rod of money. Thus, Economics addresses itself to only a fraction of what would be considered relevant to a person’s welfare even by a materialist. Still, important policy decisions having profound implications for all aspects of life are continuously being taken, almost wholly, on the basis of narrow economic calculations alone. This is the spirit of “utilitarianism”. As if the materialistic view of man was not narrow enough for a speedy disaster; this made matters go from bad to worse.
“For the last hundred years or so mankind has been suffering from a disease which seems to be spreading more and more and which has reached a climax in our times; it is what we may call ‘utilitarianism’. People and things, circumstances and activities seem to be viewed and appreciated exclusively from this angle. Nothing has any value unless it is useful. Certainly something that is useful is better than something that is not. But first we must agree on what we describe as useful – useful to whom, to what, for what? For, more and more, the races who consider themselves civilized describe as useful whatever can attract, procure or produce money. Everything is judged and evaluated from a monetary angle. That is what I call utilitarianism. And this disease is highly contagious, for even children are not immune to it.”4
The gospel of utilitarianism seems to permeate modern societies; debasing by its touch all that has opened to it consciously or unconsciously. Virtually nothing seems to have escaped completely its distorting influence. Politics, education, medicine, art, music, religion, friendships, relations, love, etc., all seem to have come under its sway. The spirit of duty, commitment, service seems to be fast losing ground to it even in areas such as education, medicine, social service, etc., which have traditionally been its strongholds. In short, the spirit of what Sri Aurobindo termed “economic barbarism” at the beginning of the last century still seems to seriously afflict modern society.
“This economic barbarism is essentially that of the vital man who mistakes the vital being for the self and accepts its satisfaction as the first aim of life. The characteristic of Life is desire and the instinct of possession. Just as the physical barbarian makes the excellence of the body and the development of physical force, health and prowess his standard and aim, so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim. His ideal man is not the cultured or noble or thoughtful or moral or religious, but the successful man. To arrive, to succeed, to produce, to accumulate, to possess is his existence. The accumulation of wealth and more wealth, the adding of possessions to possessions, opulence, show, pleasure, a cumbrous inartistic luxury, a plethora of conveniences, life devoid of beauty and nobility, religion vulgarised or coldly formalised, politics and government turned into a trade and profession, enjoyment itself made a business, this is commercialism. To the natural unredeemed economic man beauty is a thing otiose or a nuisance, art and poetry a frivolity or an ostentation and a means of advertisement. His idea of civilisation is comfort, his idea of morals social respectability, his idea of politics the encouragement of industry, the opening of markets, exploitation and trade following the flag, his idea of religion at best a pietistic formalism or the satisfaction of certain vitalistic emotions. He values education for its utility in fitting a man for success in a competitive or, it may be, a socialised industrial existence, science for the useful inventions and knowledge, the comforts, conveniences, machinery of production with which it arms him, its power for organisation, regulation, stimulus to production. The opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organiser of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if often occult rulers of its society.
The essential barbarism of all this is its pursuit of vital success, satisfaction, productiveness, accumulation, possession, enjoyment, comfort, convenience for their own sake. The vital part of the being is an element in the integral human existence as much as the physical part; it has its place but must not exceed its place. A full and well-appointed life is desirable for man living in society, but on condition that it is also a true and beautiful life. Neither the life nor the body exist for their own sake, but as vehicle and instrument of a good higher than their own. They must be subordinated to the superior needs of the mental being, chastened and purified by a greater law of truth, good and beauty before they can take their proper place in the integrality of human perfection. Therefore in a commercial age with its ideal, vulgar and barbarous, of success, vitalistic satisfaction, productiveness and possession the soul of man may linger a while for certain gains and experiences, but cannot permanently rest. If it persisted too long, Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion. Like the too massive Titan it will collapse by its own mass, mole ruet sua.”5
C. The Utilitarian Spirit in India
An almost exclusive preoccupation of public policy with “bread and butter” issues coupled with the repeated doses of ill-conceived governmental interventions and adventures in the economic system has been instrumental in inculcating the spirit of a very short-sighted “utilitarianism” in the functioning of individuals and groups. The present situation is such that wherever one looks one finds individuals and groups infested with the “utilitarian” spirit and busy exploring and innovating new ways and means of somehow, anyhow, making some extra money. Men everywhere seem to be aiming for quick, cheap and easy ways and means for material success and solution to their problems, forsaking all higher values and nobler aspirations of their being. Education, medicine, business, administration, law and justice, everywhere it is the same story. The result is that our educational institutions continue to supply degrees and diplomas but no longer provide any education worthy of the name; our doctors and hospitals are more likely to deprive a person of his money and body’s natural health than his disease; one must be a real genius in the art of shopping if one is to avoid paying too much and buying an adulterated, fake or a poor quality product in our markets. In our courts, justice may not be denied, but it can almost always be delayed indefinitely, for a fee. Our politics, government and the administrative machinery are increasingly taking on the appearance of a real nemesis for the country.
We have forgotten that when everyone is trying to get somewhere by stepping on everyone else, no one really gets anywhere. The narrow and short-sighted utilitarian spirit not only results into spiritual deprivation but must also prove in the end catastrophic for the material well-being of the society.
The quality of food, air and water has deteriorated – thanks to “development” – to such an extent that it has become a serious threat to the health and survival of people, particularly those living in heavily populated mega cities where the levels of air pollution often reach levels that are a hundred or more times higher than those considered safe. The new Modi government is viewed as a beacon of hope by many and its program to clean the Ganga and achieve cleanliness in the whole country, to check the environmental pollution and build an efficient infrastructure are admirable and steps in the right direction but it does not seems to have realized the grave dangers underlying the Western model of economic development. It is possible that it is using the development slogans as an expedient measure to get the country out of the worse morass of divisions based on caste, sect, sex and language etc. More likely it is that it does not yet really see the dangers involved in the pursuit of the “development ideal” of the modern man.
D. The Solution – the Only Way Out
“If mankind could but see though in a glimpse of fleeting experience what infinite enjoyments, what perfect forces, what luminous reaches of spontaneous knowledge, what wide calms of our being lie waiting for us in the tracts which our animal evolution has not yet conquered, they would leave all & never rest till they had gained these treasures. But the way is narrow, the doors are hard to force, and fear, distrust & scepticism are there, sentinels of Nature, to forbid the turning away of our feet from her ordinary pastures.”6
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. 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. The salvation of the human race lies not in any exclusiveness but in a more sane and integral development of the possibilities of mankind both in the individual and in the collectivity.
At present the whole of the human race has come more or less completely under the sway of the materialistic ideal. To start with, the safety of the present civilization has to be sought not only in the explicit recognition of the spiritual aim of existence but in its application to all the problems faced by it. Today all the countries, the world over, are enamoured of and altogether enslaved by the “development ideal” which concentrates on achieving an ever greater and greater volume of goods and services as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP)¹. The menacing giant of religious fundamentalism and intolerance has been raising its head since the beginning of this century and still seems to be unabated and even growing. However, even this giant – even in areas and cultures most under its sway – has to play “second fiddle” to the mightier and seemingly invincible titan named “development” which is put forward by the “wise thinkers”, the world over, as the one thing that really matters and as the very condition of survival.
¹ The GDP is – more and more – becoming rather a measure of “human deprivation” than anything else. For example, when one walks to work at an office nearby, one does not, through this simple and enjoyable act, contribute anything to the GDP. However, if one has to take a high-speed bullet train – spending hours getting to and back from work – one (indirectly) contributes enormously to the GDP; initially by way of expenses incurred in building and then in operating and maintaining such an expensive means of transportation. As the number of people who get subjected to such deprivations goes up, the GDP also goes up. The GDP also increases as conflicts (or their future likelihood), crimes, corruption, epidemics and diseases increase, because to maintain peace, safety and health, the public expenditure on these things – which enters directly into the GDP accounting – has also to be increased proportionately with the proportion ever growing higher due to ever declining real value of the services (per unit of money) in these fields due to the relentless working of the utilitarian spirit.
However, this titan – in spite of its very impressive performance in developing material infrastructure and changing the physical appearance of things – has not really been able to deliver in terms of the real well-being. As we have seen earlier, the deeper reason for this is that, basically, it is impossible to bring about a real improvement on this front without a corresponding improvement in the consciousness in which people live. For example, the quality of a service depends critically on the consciousness of people, especially in the case of the areas such as health, education and administration. As consciousness rises, we open more and more to a feeling of fraternity leading eventually to the consciousness of unity and oneness with all when spiritual levels of consciousness are approached. To the extent we fail to identify with other people and their sufferings and joys (as our own), we fail to truly serve them². Since everyone, without exception, must be on the receiving end in the case of (at least) some services, therefore, as the quality of services begins to continually deteriorate, everyone must become progressively worse off in real terms. In an economy consisting only of services (and no goods), one person’s spending on a service is another one’s income from performing it. Even if we were to multiply the nominal amounts involved in the above process by a factor of hundred and thus nominally increase everyone’s income a hundredfold – as to a large extent we have been unconsciously doing during the process of economic development – nothing would have really changed unless during this process the quality of service also changes. Even if enormous improvements in the technology of performing services were to take place during the above process – as have actually taken place during the past few decades due to rapid advancements achieved in science and technology – it need not have affected the real value of services because all advancements in technology are a double edged sword and can equally help or hurt depending on the motivation of the performers (of services). For example, the quality of educational and health services seems to have remained unaffected by the tremendous technological improvements that have been registered in these fields during past few decades. Actually, according to the experience of a good many, it has been – in spite of the appearances to the contrary – really getting progressively worse during this period, especially during the period of the free and undeterred reign of the materialistic utilitarian spirit after the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union.
² The source of all sympathy and concern for others in our surface being – the real basis of all true service – springs from the deepest truth of our being where we are all one and enjoy and entire identity with the One without a second of Veda and Vedanta. No selfish materialistic tendency, however acute, can really shut us completely from this truth – which in spite of our myopia – keeps things going and saves us from a complete collapse. Oblivious of all this, humanity has often tried in certain ages – as it seems to be doing at present with its slogans of happiness and enjoyment for all through growth and development directed entirely to the service of the animal self – to shut itself from this deeper truth and had come to grief by behaving like the proverbial fool who hacks at the very branch of the tree he is sitting on.
If we look at the development statistics, the aggregate volume of services in nominal terms has been growing faster than that of the goods. As a result, services which accounted for only about one third of the GDP in the 1950s now account for almost four-fifths of the GDP in the case of materially advanced countries like the US and about two-thirds in the case of the growing economies like India and China. If the quality of “services” declines – as it seems to have been for some time now – then the real GDP must also decline unless compensated by more than proportionate (almost double or triple compared to the fall in the real value of the “services”) increase in the real value of the volume of goods produced. We have seen earlier how the utilitarian spirit has been progressively eating at the core of quality in both goods and services. Now, certainly, technology has brought about a very significant increase in the volume of goods produced but the quality in the case of a good number of things – even of such essentials as food, water and air – has been deteriorating all along with disastrous consequences for human health and well-being.
Because of a cut-throat competition in a market economy the producers tend to concentrate on the improvements in the appearance of products while (to cut costs) taking out all that can be taken out – without the risk of the consumers easily finding out – from the products in terms of quality and durability. The movement is increasingly tending towards a scenario where more and more producers are busy developing and practicing (without compunction) ever noveler ways and means for bewitching and cheating the consumers. The result is that the markets are flooded with lots of worthless goods of bewitching appearance.
The upshot of all the above is that the well-being of people – even when narrowed to the satisfaction of the external being – has been declining in real terms. We must realise once for all, that, “The conditions in which men live on earth are the result of their state of consciousness. To seek to change these conditions without changing the consciousness is a vain chimera. Those who have been able to perceive what could and ought to be done to improve the situation in the various domains of human life – economic, political, social, financial, educational and sanitary – are individuals who have, to a greater or lesser extent, developed their consciousness in an exceptional way and put themselves in contact with higher planes of consciousness. But their ideas have remained more or less theoretical or, if an attempt has been made to realise them practically, it has always failed lamentably after a certain period of time; for no human organisation can change radically unless human consciousness itself changes. Prophets of a new humanity have followed one another; religions, spiritual or social, have been created; their beginnings have sometimes been promising, but as humanity has not been fundamentally transformed, the old errors arising from human nature itself have gradually reappeared and after some time we find ourselves almost back at the point we had started from with so much hope and enthusiasm.”7
Essentially, there are hardly any world problems that cannot be traced to human agency and which could not be overcome, to a great extent, by appropriate changes in human behaviour brought about from within. The root cause of all our problems – even of the most external – are the severe inner constraints on our vision and values which are, to a great extent, the byproducts of our acute selfish concentration on our surface selves. As things stand at present, we contemplate changing almost everything on this earth – the whole media is full of the deafening noise of intellectuals and political and social leaders about such changes – but ourselves wherein lies the only key to the solution of all our problems. There is not a single country – out of an aggregate of more than 200 on the globe – which at all concerns itself with real “man-making”. The present day education, whether “secular” or otherwise, hardly addresses this problem and is geared only to provide students with diplomas and skills which may be used to pursue their narrow selfish ends for which they had been amply groomed by the psychological atmosphere prevailing at these institutions and in the society at large.
What all this is leading to – and already has to a good extent – is obvious if one impassively looks at the present scenario where one finds oneself surrounded by, to use Yogi Sri Krishna Prem’s eloquent words, “…an aggregate of meaningless individuals determinedly pursuing their contemptible aims.”8
The one way out of this problem is that an increasing number of people becomes conscious of this deeper aspect of our problems and makes a determined move in its own way to address them. As the evolutionary crisis deepens – especially in relation to ethical and moral infrastructure – it may lead to a real awakening to this need intense and critical enough to enable it to become at least one of the most important goals to be pursued by the governments across the world.
“Governments, societies, kings, police, judges, institutions, churches, laws, customs, armies are temporary necessities imposed on us for a few groups of centuries because God has concealed His face from us. When it appears to us again in its truth & beauty, then in that light they will vanish.”9
- Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (CWSA), Vol.12, p.468, Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- CWSA, Vol.22: pp.1090-92
- CWSA, Vol.25: p.224
- Collected Works of the Mother (CWM), Vol.12, p.353
- CWSA, Vol.25: pp.79-81
- CWSA, Vol.12: p.423
- CWM, Vol.12: p.39
- Dilip Kumar Roy, Yogi Sri Krishna Prem, Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, 1992, p.134
- CWSA, Vol.12: p.465