Answers on Individuality

By Ashok Natarajan

Feb 1, 2010

What is Individuality?

What are the distinguishing attributes of Individuality?

Individuality is the possession of characteristics that help to set an individual apart from others and thereby make him unique. It can also be defined as the ability to act along lines that one believes are correct for oneself. That is, if one’s convictions and beliefs and outlook on life appear correct to him, he or she proceeds to shape his or her life on that basis even if others do not approve of it.

Individuality, creativity, original thinking, scientific discovery and social innovation.

So long as an individual conforms to the general beliefs and usages prevailing in the society, he will not think in a way that is out of the ordinary. Only when he has his own unique point of view and has a keen perception that does not conform to the regular pattern will he come up with a creative understanding. For example, when everybody around him believed that the sun was going around the earth, Copernicus had a unique perception that convinced him that the available evidence shows the earth to be revolving around the sun and not the other way around. That unique perception is his individual trait and without that he would not have come up with such a radical idea. Individuality helps original thinking in that it gives the original thinker the courage and bravery to speak about what he has seen and discovered though it be contrary to established beliefs. For example, Darwin had an original insight about the nature of life and discovered the process of evolution. This was in direct contrast to the creationist views of life held by the church. Had he been intimidated by the power of the church, he would not have spoken out. But his individualistic nature gave him the courage to speak out what he felt to be the true state of affairs and he held on to his beliefs even after he faced strong opposition from the conservatives.

Individuality and leadership

Individuality encourages self-reliance, initiative, persistence and unique perceptions and new visionary ideas, etc. All these are very useful to leaders and therefore it is not surprising that many leaders are highly individualistic. For example, Gandhiji was a great leader of modern India. He saw India under British occupation. He wanted to free his county without much bloodshed. He came up with his own unique concept of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. It appealed to the generally peaceful disposition of the Indian population and they responded en masse. It is the persistence born out of his individuality that gave Gandhiji the strength to go ahead with his unique method to secure freedom and survive all skeptic and pessimistic comments and British persecution.

Individuality and entrepreneurship

Individuality is very much necessary for the flowering of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are men who take new and fresh initiatives and individuality is very helpful for taking new initiatives. Entrepreneurs may be discouraged by others around that their new venture may not succeed and that they are venturing into unknown areas with no certainty of success. Only an individual with a firm conviction in the truth and soundness of his beliefs will persist in the face of discouragement and opposition.

In the 1983, Dr. P.C. Reddy gave up his medical practice as a heart surgeon in USA, returned to India and established the first 150-bed, private, world-class corporate hospital in the country, he faced lots of skepticism and criticism from other doctors. But he was determined to proceed with his venture, because he was an individual who believed in the soundness of his conviction that such a corporate hospital will succeed. Today Apollo Hospitals operates 46 hospitals in India and overseas with more than 8000 beds along with a national chain of medical clinics, pharmacies, and allied medical businesses. His pioneering effort has become the model which countless others have imitated to bring modern medical facilities and therapeutic capabilities to India.

Individuality, egocentricity and selfishness

Individuality is the capacity to competently deal with any new situation other than what one is trained for and what one is familiar with. We describe F.D.R as a formed individual. He was a politician running trained for routine administration. But when he took office the country was not normal and functioning routinely. It was in the midst of a severe depression requiring emergency measures and he rose to the occasion and managed to bring it out effectively.

When suddenly war descended on the nation, he tackled that too very effectively and would have brought Japan down on its knees had it not been for his unexpected demise. Such facility for tackling depression and war which are very different situations demonstrates that Roosevelt was a true individual.

Since their abilities far exceed that of the average individual, it may be natural for many of them to become vain and egoistic. But it is not the case always. Gandhiji was also a true individual who was adept in politics, religious matters, tackling foreign occupation and dealing with social reforms inside the country, etc. But he was totally unegoistic. He did not seek power though he could have easily become P.M or President of the country. The only thing he wanted to do was serve the people and the country.

One may argue that Gandhiji is a rare phenomenon and that he is not typical. Americans are very individualistic in general but also very egoistic and self-centered. They have developed physical and vital individuality only and therefore it is not surprising that their individuality is accompanied by a strong self-centeredness also. Gandhiji’s individuality was somewhat spiritual and so it escaped the egoistic accompaniment. So one can say that when spiritual individuality emerges, it will be free of egoism and selfishness.

Individuality, Democracy, Education & Culture

Individuality, freedom and democracy

These are very closely related. People with individualistic traits normally want freedom of operation and democracy gives much more freedom than monarchy, dictatorship or communism. The leaders of the French Revolution, Voltaire and Rousseau and leaders of the American war of Independence were highly individualistic men who resented the oppressive authority of the monarchy and the mother country.

Individuality and Education

There is no field more conducive to individuality than education. Individualists are people who think in their own unique way and they exhibit creativity and originality. Education can train people to become individualists by encouraging original thinking and by promoting traits such as self-reliance, persistence and lack of fear of social ostracism, etc.

A major reason for the rapid advance of Western countries is that their educational system is geared to developing an individualistic personality while in the Asian countries such as India the educational system is geared to producing students who will be conforming to prevailing social customs and beliefs. If the educational system in India is redesigned to promote individualistic personalities, we can expect acceleration in the growth of this country very soon.

Individuality and Culture

If culture is understood as the pursuit of higher ideals and not just refinement of manners, then individuality definitely helps in the promotion of culture. When American youth in the 1960s got disenchanted with the pursuit of wealth, comfort and status that were the goals of the established society, they expressed their individuality by showing an interest in higher things like spirituality, back-to-nature movement and romantic love without the conventional bindings of marriage. Though outwardly their protest against the establishment made them look unkempt and become irregular in their life-styles, the essence of their protest was an individualistic aspiration for higher cultural and psychological and spiritual pursuits.

If one is a conformist, one simply honours the beliefs, customs and usages of the community or class that one is born into without hardly bothering to find out whether they are worthwhile. If on the other hand, a person has an individualistic turn of personality, he may not agree with the established values and practices of his community and may look for fresh values outside his circle as we find the hero of Pride and Prejudice novel by Jane Austen Mr. Darcy doing by courting Elizabeth who is outside his social circle.

Individuality and Social Progress

Individuality and collective unity are not mutually opposed as they appear to be superficially. Society gives the support of the collectivity to the Individual thereby enabling him to do many things that he cannot do by himself while the pioneering and innovative acts of individuals help society progress and advance. As such their interaction can be a healthy and mutually beneficial association. Society therefore stands to gain by fostering the individuality of its members since such individualistic members will only accelerate the development of the society in the long run when their actions begin to have their effects on the larger society around them.

Individuals who seem to be breaking established social customs and regulations may appear to be destabilizing the society. But such dislocations are only temporary and a higher stability will be restored later on. Luther severely disturbed the peace and order prevailing in Europe when he came out with his protestant principles. When the Catholic Church failed to crush his rebellion, the situation calmed down and the followers of the Protestant sect were much freer to continue their worship without the restrictions of the church coming in the way.

The Hippy generation and their unconventional ways were a sign of individualistic protest against the empty and hollow pursuits of the conventional society which was merely after money and social status and nothing more worthwhile. Their protest seemed to disturb the order and regularity of conventional society. But after some two decades of their protest, society seems to have learnt some useful lessons from that experience. There is better awareness of environmental health and safety, more importance given to real worth and true accomplishment than to formal social status and outer appearances, etc.

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother have predicted the emergence of the supramental spiritual individual in the coming future. He may have nothing of the disturbing effects that are associated with individuals who initiate social reforms and cause revolutions etc. Since he operates from the unity of the Supermind which has seen the whole, his impact on the society may be smooth and gradual and help in the transformation of society to the higher level without the dislocations normally associated with individuals bent on social reform.

Individuality and Social Development

In order to understand the interaction between the individual and the society we must first understand the nature of the relationship between these two. Man is a gregarious species and likes to live in groups rather than alone. Early in his history he seems to have realized that being part of a group confers many advantages such as physical safety, accomplishment of bigger works than he can do by himself and better prospects of finding a mate and raising a family, etc. For these reasons men seem to have consented to form collective societies and seem to have been willing to sacrifice some individual privacy and individual comforts, etc.

So we understand that the relationship between these two is of a complementary nature. The society helps individuals to take better care of themselves and individuals in turn help the society maintain itself by contributing some share of their income and labor for the common welfare. Though theoretically society is there for the benefit of the constituent individuals, at some stage it acquires a personality of its own and at that point its own development acquires more priority than the development of the individuals who are part of it. Therefore it restrains those individuals who do not conform to the existing social standards and who deviate for better or worse. Criminals who do not obey the laws of the society are thrown in jails and thereby prevented from causing any changes in the outer society.

Those who deviate and differ from society’s existing social customs, beliefs and standards due to their originality, enterprise and pioneering mentality are also considered deviant and many times persecuted as it happened to Galileo, Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther and Karl Marx. If they are brave and powerful enough to survive the social opposition, then they become leaders of the very same society and lead it to higher stages in knowledge and accomplishment, as evidenced by the events in the life of Darwin, Luther, Gandhiji, etc.

Individuality and Accomplishment

One cannot achieve in any field without some individuality since accomplishment requires initiative, creativity, persistence and courage, all of which are traits that go with individuality. Early settlers in America survived and prospered mainly because they were courageous men with lots of initiative and persistence. Without such individualistic traits they would have failed to accomplish anything in the new world and might have remained paupers there as they had been in the old world that they left behind.

Churchill succeeded in his aim of defeating Nazi Germany due to his extraordinary courage that inspired the Allied forces to put up a stiff resistance to Nazi aggression. Henry Ford revolutionized auto production because he was an individual who had a keen eye that sensed the opportunity for assembly line production with division of labor. Without that individualistic streak he might not have even noticed such a possibility.

Leonardo da Vinci was an individual who had a far-ranging vision of the type of machinery that will come in the future and was able to draw sketches of what looked like a helicopter. Visionary ideas come to individualistic people since they are not satisfied with existing state of affairs and want to create something new.

Is humanity becoming more individualistic?

The spread of democracy, industrialization, education and greater awareness of human rights has certainly given people more freedom which they are using to develop their individuality. If the stated purpose of human evolution is the emergence of the complete spiritual Individual, then the increasing trend towards more individualism may be a sign of what is coming in the future.

Physical, vital and mental individualism is certainly much better than the mass conformity of past centuries. But by themselves they will not rid humanity of its present ills and disorders. That has to wait for the emergence of spiritual individuality. When the physical, vital and mental individualities submit to the overall authority of the individuality of the Spirit and function under its guidance, we can then expect the dissolution of present social and economic maladies that afflict humanity.

Till now all development that has come so far to society has come only through the pioneering efforts of individuals who have thought originally, acted innovatively and lived in a manner that is inspiring to others. If physical, vital and mental individuality can achieve this much, what will be the speed of social advancement when the spiritual individual starts acting?

Even now it is on record from the writings of Sri Aurobindo that one man’s perfection can save the world. When we see that a single man, Churchill, saved Europe from Nazi domination and a single individual Mahatma Gandhiji forced the British to hand over power to India, we must admit the truth of Sri Aurobindo’s statement. The emerging spiritual individual will be more powerful than mere mortals like Churchill and Gandhi. As such the impact of their personalities on the world will be even greater.

So we can definitely say that the current trend towards greater individualism only bodes well for the future of humanity and as such it should be encouraged.

Fostering Individuality

Individuality develops by trying to look at everything from one’s own unique point of view. It can be fostered by giving individuals a lot of freedom to think and act in ways that are new and innovative. An atmosphere of self-reliance is also conducive to the development of individuality. For example a child accepting the religion of his parents simply because they have taught him what they know is not individuality but simple conformity with parental wishes. If on the other hand if he looks at what they have taught him from his own point of view and finds them valuable for himself and then accepts those beliefs or rejects them and chooses something else, then he is said to be an individual.

Feminine Individuality

When we talk about individuality general statements about developing individuality may not address the specific problems and constraints faced by women. Acquiring individuality has a lot to do with freedom and capacity for independent initiative which are out of the reach of women folk in many conservative countries.

Therefore the basic requirements for women to develop individuality are the right to education and the right to employment and income. In many Muslim countries women are discouraged from attending schools and this is very much true of countries like Afghanistan where fundamentalist parties like Taliban have negative attitudes towards female education. In many Western countries and many developing countries in Asia and Africa educated women seeking employment and obtaining their own personal income has become the norm. They have also made inroads into politics which has been traditionally a male bastion and we have Golda Meir of Israel, Margaret Thatcher of U.K. and Sheik Hasina of Bangladesh as proof of this claim.

Changing social trends are also giving women the freedom to develop their individuality. Before 1970 many a daughter-in-law in India lived under the domination of the Mother-in-law and hardly had any freedom to act independently. She obeyed the instructions of the mother-in-law to the letter and so where is the question of developing any individuality. If at all she had any individuality she had to suppress it totally so as to be in the good books of the senior lady. But now joint families are breaking up and nuclear families have increased in numbers and so married women have a lot more freedom of choice now and they can have their own outlook upon life and choose among many options before them regarding jobs, children education, family expenses and interior decoration etc.

So socially speaking the right climate has been provided for women to develop their individuality by giving them the right to education, job, income and liberation from the domination of the mother-in-law. Beyond this point it is up to women to come forward to consider weaning themselves from their traditional roles as wives and mothers if they are to develop any meaningful individuality. Many women become wives and mothers simply to conform with the expectations of the family and society around them and not really because that is what they want. Girls who see another woman they know is not really happy with her marriage develop an aversion to married life fearing the same unhappiness will visit them if they get married also. But they are not bold enough to assert their choice in this matter and declare their intention to be free of marriage bonds. So a good number of them simply submit to their parental pressure and become married women and find the same unhappiness descending on them also. So in such a situation a woman who feels marriage won’t suit her will be considered an individual if she puts her foot down and resists parental pressure and manages to remain unmarried as long as she wishes.

Many women are also quite happy to submit to the authority of the husband and let him decide what is good for them. According to the divine mother this joy of submission is a weakness from the point of view of individuality and must be given up by women if they are to stand on their own legs. Child bearing is also a powerful physical urge with many women and even many women with higher spiritual aspirations put them aside for the joy of bearing children. This submission to the physical urge has to be conquered if women are to gain any worthwhile individuality.

Individuality, Romance & Spirituality
Individuality and Romantic Love

When social conformists marry, they will simply marry someone from their own community without even bothering to find out whether that person suits his or her particular disposition, values, beliefs and tastes, etc. Using the themes of Pride and Prejudice novel, had Darcy been a conformist he would have married his cousin Anne without a second thought as to whether her personality and habits and tastes suited him or not. He is an aristocrat and she is an aristocrat and moreover they are close relatives and equally wealthy and a social conformist will hardly ask for more.

But Darcy was no mere aristocrat who merely the sought the forms and trappings of an aristocratic marriage. He wanted some substance and meaning in the relationship with his marriage partner and he could get that only by looking beyond his social circle. Elizabeth, daughter of a lesser aristocrat fit his requirements and he went ahead and married her despite the opposition of his aunt who was steeped in conformity.

Individuality and Spirituality

Individuality is most suited to the field of spirituality because the spirit in man needs to realize that it is the true Self in man and that it is something separate and different from the mind and vital and body cloak that is lying on top of it. The man who has realized the spirit residing within himself will believe in the truth of his spirit and its own convictions even if they are directly opposed to the reasonings of his mind and the impulses of his vital and the habits of his body.

If his spirit tells him to proceed with a work on the basis of a faith that the work will succeed he will proceed even if his mind tells him that the prospects are bleak and his vital sees the situation as hopeless and his body obeying his vital has no motivation to do the work. For example, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother firmly believed in the reality of the supramental consciousness and the possibility of its descent on earth and they worked for that even when nobody else took them seriously and the orthodox schools of spirituality rejected their integral yoga and its beliefs.

The spiritual individual will try to wean himself from the control of his body by overcoming the hold of habits which keep a man enslaved to his body. He will try to wean himself from the hold of the vital by detaching himself from the impulses that constantly invade him and thereby try to develop a vital individuality. He will try to develop a mental individuality by weaning himself from the hold of countless opinions and attitudes society has imposed on him and form his own fresh point of view on these matters. Such an acquisition of a true physical, vital and mental individuality will help him in his efforts to discover the true individual spiritual self within him far more easily than if he is helplessly under the grip of his own body and vital and mind complex.

Individuality & Social Conformity

What is the driving force behind this phenomenon of social conformity?

So many people take social conformity for granted that not many bother to find out why it is such a powerful phenomenon and why so many people submit to this force without any resistance.

In ants and termite colonies the entire unit composed of thousands of individual ants or termites act as one unit and there is hardly any individual variation. The queen ant or termite spreads a chemical oozing out of her body through the entire assembly of ants and termites and that shared chemical bond somehow helps to keep the entire colony as one functional unit. But in a human community composed of countless individuals such unvarying conformity as found in ant colonies will be very surprising. It will be because humans are conscious individuals with a free will and unthinking submission to the Collective as found in Animal groups is something unthinkable.

But such submission is very much there and it is therefore worth finding out what endows this social conformity with such a tremendous force. It is easy to understand that in traditional pre-modern societies which saw very little change, uniform submission to the established custom and usage was the norm. For example in pre-industrial India which was feudal and agrarian, the priestly community held sway and monarchs ruled with absolute power. In such stagnant and conservative times, hardly anybody deviated from the standard custom and practice. Untouchables hardly aspired to rise above their station in society as menials, people followed the hereditary profession of their community, women submitted to the authority of men and widows hardly dared to remarry.

Though such strict submission to the authority of the social Collective is not there anymore in democratic and industrialized societies, still social conformity is widely prevalent and why it is still so needs to be explored. Three main factors appear as prominent reasons for social conformity to be still in force.

Power of habit which simply keeps perpetuating itself.

Fear of punishment and social ostracism.

Power of inertia and unwillingness to change.

Power of habit in enforcing social conformity

As said earlier, in traditional societies men simply followed the profession of their forefathers and engaged in what was known as the hereditary occupation of their community. Though the feudal and agrarian nature of society has changed considerably, this habit is still very much prevalent. Even today in modern India members of the priestly community still try to practice only certain chosen professions prescribed in the ancient scriptures for them and will shun certain other professions as beneath them even if they are monetary rewarding now. Setting up a leather factory or show showroom may be a lucrative profession now. But members of the priestly community won’t jump at this as this has been prohibited for them in their scriptures.

Many Indians took to the civil service under the British Raj as it gave them a sustained income, authority of government service and security of job. Even though the economy has changed considerably since the British left India, this fascination with government service still continues very much and many an Indian father still points to the civil service as the safe haven for his son even though prosperity looms large just outside the confines of civil service.

Many anachronistic practices continue in society simply by power of habit. The British coat and suit continues in tropical India even after the Britisher has left a long time ago. Corporate executives are afraid to break out of this mold simply due to fear of non-conformity. Only in the IT sector where people are allowed to dress casually have people dared to break out of this coat and suit syndrome and dress as they like. The age of extracting work by exercise of authority and issuing order has passed a long time ago and has been replaced by the age of consensus and collaboration. Still many corporate bosses function in the old style and issue executive fiats with little consultation with those below. Those below are obeying the executive fiats simply out of fear of questioning authority as their predecessors have done for generations. Only in the IT industry have people changed and the Team leader is seen as one among the team and not as some remote figure of authority.

Fear of punishment and ostracism

Many people will behave in an individualistic manner if they are not frightened of being punished and ostracized for not conforming to existing social standards. Galileo was put under house arrest and forced to disown his discoveries when his endorsements of Copernicus’s observations about the earth orbiting the sun displeased the Church. Many a young man and woman control themselves from falling in love and having a love marriage for fear of being ostracized and rejected b y parents and relatives in India as a love marriage may turn out to be an inter-caste marriage.

During the days of anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, politicians who recognized the value of Hindi were afraid to speak out in the Tamil Nadu assembly in favour of introducing Hindi in schools as they were afraid of being shouted down. Poet Subramanya Bharathi was a fearless individualist who did not care for social ridicule or ostracism. He freely moved with lower caste people, walked holding his wife’s hand on the street and wrote inflammatory articles opposing the British Raj. But such men are rare. Most men will hesitate to deviate from the social norm for fear of being punished and will suppress their individualism to a great extent so as to appear all right in the eyes of society.

Fear of change and role of inertia in opposing change

Familiarity gives a feeling of security and unfamiliarity generates fear and insecurity. This is very true of animals and not any less true of man also. Animals show reluctance when they are forced to move away from familiar territory and will try their best to come back to their old home grounds. Men are also very reluctant to move away from familiar places unless they are pressed by famine, war and persecution to leave their home lands. So basically there is something in man that feels comfortable with familiar conditions and distrusts anything new and different from what he knows as normal.

Exploring new territories is a forbidding task that not many take up eagerly. That is why ancient explorers like Columbus and all those who set out to explore the new world became noteworthy figures for daring to do something so risky. This fear of unknown territory gradually got extended to new ideas and customs and practices that were not heard of before or practiced by the community that one belongs to.

Indian villagers were afraid to receive small pox vaccinations as they have never heard of such a treatment before for preventing small pox. They were only used to covering the stricken patient with neem leaves. So suddenly when the Englishman came up with something new called vaccination it aroused suspicion and distrust. Sailors used to wooden boats were skeptical when steel ships were fabricated for sailing in the oceans. The same fear came with respect to air planes when they came on the scene.

Such fears are not confined to new territory and new machines alone. New ideas can also evoke the same fear. The concept of the U.N maintaining a global army and individual nations disbanding their national armies is something so unconventional that individual nations feel insecure about implementing this proposal. Even an American President exhibited fear when the idea of paper currency was mooted as a replacement for gold and silver coins. The ideas of Karl Marx about a communist type of social organization generated fear in the minds of people living in capitalist countries as they feared the total collapse of all that they were familiar with if communism gains ground.

So when change is feared in so many ways individuals who are constantly taking new initiatives that are unconventional are feared and shunned as agents of social instability. Moreover efforts to change demand a lot of energy and strain and people resist such extra efforts as painful. People who are used to keeping their house dirty will find it to be a painful effort if they are told to keep their house clean. So those who are lazy by disposition will reject advice to keep their house clean even if it is beneficial and makes the house look attractive. Similarly people who are satisfied with a minimum income in a secure salaried job will find efforts to start their own self-enterprise painful and will resent those who offer such advice. So one can imagine the fear and distrust an unconventional individualistic type of person will evoke when he goes about asking others to give up what they are familiar with and accept something unknown before. Such is the fear that Socrates evoked when he asked people to think about truth, justice and proper government etc. Normal citizens of Athens had never thought about these things and felt uncomfortable facing such questions. News spread to the government of Athens about the troublesome questions raised by Socrates and he was immediately branded as a disturber of social peace and punished with death by drinking poison. So inertia and fear of change are also powerful factors that keep people committed to social conformity.