Can the writings of Sri Aurobindo on the psychological factors of war provide insight into the present Russia-Ukraine conflict?
A defining feature of the humans is that they kill their fellow members of the species through highly abstracted motivations and efficiently institutionalised mechanisms. From the projectiles of the humanoids, we have graduated to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just the cost of building two small sized nuclear-powered submarines can provide electrification for entire Africa.
This is not simply a statement of rhetoric. This is about how we prioritise our resources as species. We employ our most precious, most scarce resources as well as the best brains of our species to kill fellow members of our own species.
What is our way out?
The immediate answer is pacifism. But one nation’s pacifist, either intentionally or unwittingly, becomes the antagonistic nation’s agent of subversion. Today this has become a strategy. During the Cold War, the USSR built an entire industry of subversion from the idealistic peace movement in the USA. After the collapse of the USSR, the USA, too, has made use of the righteous indignation we have for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in the hands of fanatical dictators, to justify invasion of Iraq and, in the process, creating many crony contract winners for oil business.
The real answer then must exist in understanding the evolutionary nature of our species.
A seer who saw human history in the vast canvas of the evolutionary history of the planet was Sri Aurobindo. While the West too has produced evolutionary philosophers who viewed human evolution either in terms of social Darwinism or Marxism, Sri Aurobindo approached evolution with primacy of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo saw the planet itself flowering into self-consciousness and then becoming a receptacle to supramental consciousness through human evolution. The human evolution itself, to him, becomes qualitatively different from the previous forms of evolution. The thrust of his argument has been that humans are a transitional species. They are the springboards to leap into higher evolution. But the jumps from the springboards can also become falls into abyss.
The collective near-suicidal tendency towards war can be explained by the unconscious realisation of our species of it being a transitional form that wants to evolve but knows not how. This is because the path of evolution itself has undergone a radical qualitative change with the arrival of the manifest individual consciousness as in humans.
While his conceptual and visionary sweep runs into thousands of years in the past and millennia into the future, his own life as an individual witnessed some very crucial and defining events – Indian freedom struggle in its nascent nebulous form with revolutionary activities, the two World Wars and then the Independence as well as the partition of India. From the cosmic epiphany of the Vedic seers to the horrors of the Second World War to the continuing and pestering pain of the Partition, he saw in his own life the way humanity struggled.
Hence understanding how Sri Aurobindo comprehended all these world events through his own vision of evolution will help us understand what is happening to our species – whether it is in Ukraine or Afghanistan.
During that nebulous phase of the freedom struggle, a very important geopolitical event happened at the international level.
In 1904-1905 Japan defeated Russia. An Asiatic Island power defeated a mighty European empire. Indian nationalists celebrated this victory. It showed the hollowness of the claims of European superiority over Asiatic people. Writing about this, Sri Aurobindo pointed out a deeper reason in the victory of Japan:
All sorts of theories had been started to account for the uprising, but now intellectual Japanese are telling us what were the fountains of that mighty awakening, the sources of that inexhaustible strength. They were drawn from religion. It was the Vedantic teachings of Oyomei and the recovery of Shintoism with its worship of the national Shakti of Japan in the image and person of the Mikado that enabled the little island empire to wield the stupendous weapons of western knowledge and science as lightly and invincibly as Arjun wielded the Gandiv.Bhavani Mandir (emphasis not in the original)
This was in Bhavani Mandir.
What is to be noted here is the observation of Sri Aurobindo to underline the ability of the nation-state to draw from a primordial spiritual source to synch with its national interests. Though, before he started his Sadhana, Sri Aurobindo was also able to see that a nation animated by such energy could still go berserk.
In 1907 Japan invaded Korea, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
The Koreans cannot see their way to acquiesce in Japanese rule, ergo, they are arch-intriguers. Europe in her present temper seems to be the most uncompromising enemy of the liberty of all peoples except her own... Europe is a worshipper of success, and we need not wonder if she is glad to see an Eastern power taking a leaf out of her book, in threatening the liberty of nations.[July 22, 1907]
In both of these passages, we have an unfolding vision. He shows the deep psychological source of national rejuvenation and also how it could go wrong.
At the same time, Sri Aurobindo wants India to emerge strong so that she gets into a negotiating position if the Asiatic superpowers of that time, China and Japan, come together against the British India. Here Aurobindo did not have the illusion of either China or Japan being the 'liberators' of India. But he sees Indians shaping India into a strong national-political entity would help them to use such a circumstance to their advantage.
The simple formula of ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ does not appeal to Sri Aurobindo.
During the World Wars, Sri Aurobindo was involved in his Sadhana. Yet he observed the developments keenly and went into the psychology of the War. Between August 1916 and July 1918, he was writing a series of articles published monthly in Arya under the title the Psychology of Social Development. The text was later published in 1949, with further inputs from Sri Aurobindo as 'The Human Cycle'. Thus this text has seen both the World Wars.
Here Sri Aurobindo points out how nurturing only the physical and vital components of a nation's collective psyche shall inevitably lead to more destruction with gestation periods for war in between. Sri Aurobindo wrote:
... now after the physical war with its first psychological results is well over, we are already able to see in which direction the tide is likely to flow. War is a dangerous teacher and physical victory leads often to a moral defeat. Germany, defeated in the war, has won in the after war; the German gospel rearisen in a sterner and fiercer avatar threatens to sweep over all Europe(emphasis not in the original)
Sure enough, Germany would come back in the form of Nazi totalitarianism and destruction. What was more, the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazis, which Sri Aurobindo unhesitatingly supported, also ushered in a world where Communist totalitarian regimes and an unprincipled West brought in more misery, human suffering, arms race and Cold War.
Now the Cold War has ended, and the same pattern seems to be repeated. Let us apply this Sri Aurobindonian framework to the Russo-Ukraine conflict.
The fall of the USSR in 1991 was also the fall of both an empire, predominantly Russian, and the shattering of a utopian vision-Marxist. Actually, Marxism promised spiritual freedom or true freedom when a complete imposed equality was brought. It told and continues to tell all those who feel satisfied with their social and economic freedom that they are living in a 'capitalist matrix'.
Not only it could not deliver the spiritual freedom it promised, but it ended up taking away the existing freedoms of the individual. It was constrained by its dogmatism and euro-centrism. It could not accept the complementarity of consciousness with the matter. A closed system, it became inevitably inhumanly tyrannical, creating an all-powerful State with no freedom. Marxist socialism became a cult leading to 'darkness at noon.'
That West was not morally superior to the USSR. It was the West of MK-Ultra and Tuskegee experiments. It supported Honduras and every tin-pot dictator in South America who brought human misery and suffering to countless innocents, including women and children, in the cruellest way imaginable – all justified in the name of fighting the 'evil Communists'.
In the final body count between Soviet totalitarian communism and Western predatory consumerism, the former could have had a higher number, but the latter is as cruel as and more sustained than its enemy.
The USSR was defeated more because of its inner weakness integral to Marxism than because of the moral superiority of the West.
Now Russia is, here again, arising under an oligarchy. It is the physical and vital Russia. It is on a rampage. Ukraine is today a puppet in the hands of NATO.
Unfortunately, Russia did not learn from the Nazis and the USSR.
It has its spiritual geniuses. It is in a unique place which could have transformed the expansionist Western movement into a more inward-looking and hence more fruitful civilisation. Ukraine and Russia belong to a common spiritual culture which was weakened and even harmed by the imposition of Soviet rule. Ukraine has its own bitter memories from the Soviet regime – Holodomor of 1932-33.
Russia could have built a healing spiritual bridge with Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR. But it allowed Ukraine to recede further and further from Russia into the hands of the West. Ukraine, too allowed itself to be attracted more to the West due to the lure of NATO power and consumerist tendencies. Both Ukraine and Russia have legitimate historical grievances. But while Ukraine has allowed itself to be led by the West and cleave from its common heritage with Russia, Russia has gone into the path of aggression and destruction.
The West, meanwhile, very much like Sri Aurobindo pointing out how the post-World War-I Europe internalised and allowed itself to be won by German values and institutions, had internalised some of the core values and strategies of erstwhile USSR. One can see this is in the language employed by the 'New York Times' or the 'Washington Post' against India.
What is happening in the Russia-Ukraine war is the physical and vital rejuvenation without the spiritual. It is dangerous, and it can lead to only human sufferings. Still, if Russia can persuade herself to listen to her authentic soul and Ukraine to her own, then there can be a way out. Sri Aurobindo says:
(The true individuality of a nation) lies not in its physical, economic, even its cultural life which are only means and adjuncts, but in something deeper whose roots are not in the ego, but in a Self one in difference which relates the good of each, on a footing of equality and not of strife and domination, to the good of the rest of the world.
If we take this Self into consideration in our regional, commercial, political, cultural, religious, diplomatic interactions then we still transform the pain of suicidal war into the pain of labour of ushering in a new humanity.
(Largely based on 'Inevitable Wars and Illusionary Peace: Sri Aurobindo's Realism' Keynote address to Rashtram School of Public Leadership on 31 March 2022)
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.