- Agricultural & Rural Development
- Alternative Education
- Business & Management
- Eternal Romance
- Life in Literature & Cinema
- Social Development in India
- Social Science Research
- Spirituality in Life
- MSS HISTORY
- ABOUT US
Emergence of the Spiritual Individual
Emergence of the Spiritual Individual
The Evolutionary Pioneer
The world has a love-hate relationship with America and everything American. As a native-born US citizen living in India for the past 35 years, I benefit from the spontaneous respect and universal goodwill that people everywhere accord to citizens of my country, even in places where you might least expect it. I can still recall the astonishment I felt during my first visit to Moscow in 1989 at the genuine warmth and affectionate interest with which I was received by the Russian people. More surprising is the friendly goodwill of the Vietnamese toward the USA, which vigorously opposed their movement for national independence and wrought so much suffering and destruction on their people.
The paradoxical response of foreigners to America was brought home again sharply by two incidents on my recent travel abroad. Attending an international conference on the problems of Africa last month, my pride as an American quickly diminished as a number of Nobel Peace laureates from different countries condemned the USA as one of the major sources of the world’s economic and environmental problems or at least for its failure to resolve them. No other country was specifically incriminated by any of the speakers. My sense of discomfort rose further when I heard the same refrain from two distinguished Americans, the son and daughter of President John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert, the former US Attorney General who was assassinated five years after JFK while running for the democratic presidential nomination in 1968. It struck me only after the fact that among participants from so many countries, Americans were the only ones who were willing to openly criticize their own government and their own country, though surely the USA has no monopoly on any of the ills that presently threaten humanity. Of course, people in every country enjoy berating their own governments when they are at home. But the fact that these Americans were the only ones who also felt the self-confidence and independence to speak negatively about their country before an unsympathetic audience abroad made me wonder why.
The second incident occurred on my return from USA in September when I struck up a conversation with a 20 year old Chennai girl who had just spent a year working in USA as a software engineer and was coming back home to get married. In response to my inquiring how she felt about her experience living in America, she gave a broad smile and said it was so wonderful that she never even thought of coming back home. When I nodded my head in approval, she hastened to add, “Oh, I do not mean because of the high salary I am earning there. It is not the money that makes me love living in America. It is the way people treat me, the respect that I am given, the confidence they have in me and the encouragement I receive to develop my capacities.”
What is it that makes America at once such a powerful object of both attraction and vilification? Over the years I have heard countless explanations for this paradox. According to one, America is the wealthiest country. Therefore it is an object of envy and also has a greater responsibility than other countries for sharing its wealth. According to another, America is now the sole superpower. It is the guardian of freedom and democracy around the world. It is also the country that is bullying smaller nations in utter disregard of world public opinion. It is preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, but it is refusing to eliminate its own stockpiles. America is a strong advocate of free trade that has spurred rapid growth of the world economy, but globalization of markets causes great harm and havoc to vulnerable developing countries. America is the champion of freedom but it does nothing to support the freedom of oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians.
The variations on these themes are endless, but they have never provided me with a fully satisfying explanation of why the whole world without exception is so fascinated with America and everything American – its consumerism, technology, cinema, music and lifestyle – yet at the same time so very critical of America’s very many and obvious problems and faults – its poverty, high crime rate and archaic gun laws, broken families, refusal to address the threat of global warming, addiction to junk food, and arrogant self-assertiveness.
It is easy to admire or to condemn. It is far less easy to understand and gain insight into the underlying reason for the world’s fascination with America. A recent book entitled A Study of American History by N. Asokan throws fresh and original light on this phenomenon. Though referred to as a history, it is much more an analysis of the underlying factors that have propelled America’s rise to world eminence. While this subject may appear of interest primarily to historians, economists and world leaders, this book offers insights that should interest every thinking and aspiring individual who seeks a better future for himself, his country and the world. Applying insights drawn from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, behind the energy and enterprise, violence and vulgarity that we associate with America, the author identifies a deeper truth of significance to all humanity – America is presently the vanguard of the world’s social and spiritual evolution. Americans are evolutionary pioneers.
At first the very idea of associating America with anything spiritual may seem absurd and even vulgar. It may be true that a larger percentage of Americans proclaim their faith in God than people in other economically-advanced countries, but surely it is not religious fervour or piety that strikes most people as quintessentially American or the source of its attraction to the rest of the world. In order to explain what possible relationship America could have to the world’s spiritual evolution, we will first have to examine what Sri Aurobindo means by the terms spirituality and evolution and the process by which the spirit is progressively manifesting in life on earth. This will form the subject matter of the subsequent articles in this series.
But first, it may be helpful to realize that both the fascination and condemnation of America date back to long before America became a leading economic or military superpower in the world. In fact, it may surprise some that until very recent times America was largely looked down upon by the more civilized and cultured people’s of Europe as a safe haven for mindless brutes, religious and economic refugees, desperados and lost souls. Today American is admired as the world leader in science and technology, yet before World War II, almost all the Nobel prizes went to Europeans and barely a handful to Americans. It is only after 1950 that the vast majority of Nobel laureates have been people born or living in USA and at least in one year all the prizes went to Americans. While England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it is in America that the power of science and technology was most vigorously and effectively harnessed for economic growth. Even in the late 19th Century, American industry accounted for 34 percent of the world’s total manufactured goods compared to a mere 7 percent in Britain. America is admired today as a leader in education, with the finest university system in the world generating more than new 30,000 PhDs each year and the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world. Yet back in 1880, only one PhD was awarded in the entire USA. America’s rise to eminence is a recent phenomenon, but the origins of this achievement lay in the distant past.
One of the first global citizens to draw attention to America was the French civil servant Alexis Tocqueville who traveled to the USA in 1831 to examine America’s prison system and was deeply impressed by the energy, dynamism and freedom he discovered in America. His book Democracy in America, in which he described the quintessence of the American character, became a classic and remains essential reading on America even today. There he prophesies America’s emergence as world leader more than 100 years before it became a reality. The French Revolution proclaimed to the world the ideals of freedom and equality for every individual human being. But four decades after that Revolution had reverted to a hierarchical class-based social structure in France, this Frenchman was amazed by the unprecedented degree of individual freedom and equality that had become a practical reality for people living in America. Ideals that inspired revolution in Europe had become facts on the other side of the Atlantic.
Some have attributed America’s achievements to its vast physical area and rich natural resources. Even after the breakup of the Soviet empire, Russia remains both larger and better naturally endowed, yet far less prosperous than America. Perhaps the only explanation for America’s achievements that is not seriously advocated by anyone is the claim that America’s greatness arises from its racial and ethnic origins or its inherent genetic superiority. This argument is obviously baseless, since 99 percent of present-day Americans trace their origins back to different countries and ethnic groups from all over the world. But most people who have lived in America will agree with the observation of the Chennai software engineer that in America they are able to develop and express more of their own inherent potential than in their countries of origin.
The secret of American prosperity lies not it any inherent superiority of its people but rather in the way it fosters the development and expression of each person’s individual capacities. Here is the point where material accomplishment and spiritual attainment meet. For according to Sri Aurobindo, the emergence and development of individuality is a crucial and significant step in the spiritual evolution of life on earth. Individuality is the means by which the Divine manifests its infinite potential in a finite world. The individual is the pioneer of the world’s spiritual evolution and America, more than any other country, respects, nurtures, encourages and celebrates individual uniqueness and individual accomplishment.
Stages of Individuality
Why are love marriages becoming more common in India? Many people condemn them as a decadent import from the West and a threat to traditional family values that have knit Indian society together for millennium. But despite the intense opposition, love marriages continue to spread. In reality, they are a superficial sign of a more profound change in Indian society -- the evolutionary emergence of individuality in the social collective.
Arranged marriages are an ingenious system that relieve the individual of much strife and heartache by making the family responsible for selecting and securing one’s future spouse. Why then are they beginning to give way to a system in which each person is responsible for selecting, attracting and winning a lifelong partner and is forced to invest enormous mental and emotional energy engaging in that pursuit? Surely arranged marriages are more efficient, less taxing and, judging by divorce rates, far more successful in creating lasting partnerships. What could possibly be the rationale and justification for a change?
Those who think that love marriage is a Western invention and import should recall that Indian tradition is steeped in stories of romantic love from the days of Nala and Damayumti, Arjuna and Draupadi, Savitri and Satyavan. We should also recall that arranged marriages were common in Western society a few hundred years ago. The romance and elopement of Romeo and Juliet was a violation of the social norm, not the common practice among aristocrats of their day.
Our purpose here is not to justify or condemn but rather to identify and understand the underlying forces that are feeding this trend. For that we have to examine the role of individuality in the process of social development. For it is the progressive emergence of individuality that is driving this change.
Those raised in the modern Western tradition know that the pursuit of the perfect partner is fraught with difficulty, pain and, often enough, disappointment and failure. Imagine primary school children being preoccupied about their grooming and dress out of concern about what children of the opposite sex will think of them. Imagine the social and psychological pressure on boys and girls to acquire the interpersonal skills needed to attract members of the opposite sex. Imagine the anxiety among youth that they may never find and win any suitable partner at all. Add to this the expectation that on completion of their education at 18 or 21 years of age, youth of both sexes are expected to move out of their family homes and become economically self-supporting, even if their parents are quite wealthy.
The basis for all these practices is not the family’s heartless indifference to the fortunes of their offspring or the immorality of a decadent society. It springs from a fundamental faith in the value and capacity of the individual human being and the conviction that each individual should be both free and responsible for choosing and determining his or her own destiny.
To fully appreciate this view we must first understand what is meant by the term individuality and recognize that the widespread development of individuality in society is a relative recent phenomenon in the world-at-large. This statement may strike the reader as strange since it is evident that humankind is and has always been nothing other than a group of individual human beings. In what sense could we possibly mean that individuality is only recently emerging as a result of the evolution of humanity?
The difficulty is partially one of semantics. In English, the word individual has two related but different meanings – single and distinctive. It is commonly used to denote a single or particular member of any group, such as each individual member of the family and each individual student in the class. This is not the sense in which we use the word here. By individual we refer to a member of the society who has acquired his or her own distinctiveness and originality. Each member of the human race is an individual in the sense of being a single, separate physical person. But very few members of the race are really social, psychological and mental individuals.
Most of us depend on other people and the society around us for our physical survival, our sense of identity, our beliefs, attitudes, manners, behaviors, opinions, ideas, sentiments, ideals, values and even our spiritual faith and practices. We become true individuals only to the extent that we are able and willing to take care of ourselves physically, to maintain ourselves economically, to think and decide for ourselves, to survive and thrive on our own strength, courage and resourcefulness.
When asked about the true criterion for becoming a leader, the CEO of one of America’s largest computer companies replied: “Are you able to make it on your own in Shanghai?” He was one who attributed his success as a leader to what he had learned as a boy struggling for survival in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. To him a true leader is a developed individual who knows how to rely on his own inner strength, judgment and resourcefulness to make tough decisions and get through difficult times. He is not one who is always worried what others think about him, afraid to stand out from the crowd or choose a course that others disagree with.
The immigrants who flocked to America in the 18th and 19th Century, abandoning family and property in search of a new life in a new world became true physical individuals. They were the pioneers who moved West through a barren, hostile wilderness, clearing the forest and fending off dangers from man and beast. Often living with no police or army for their protection, each man or group had to become a law unto themselves. No wonder they carried weapons and learned how to use them. They had to hunt or grow and store all their own food, stitch their own clothes, build their own homes, gather firewood to warm themselves during the long, snow-bound winter months when it was too cold even to venture outside. In the process, so many lives were sacrificed for every square mile of land on this sprawling continent. That energy, capacity and self-confidence endures today in the American spirit. It is the energy and confidence of individuality that conquered and raised this nation to its position of world leadership.
We become true individuals socially only when our social values and actions are determined by our own distinctive judgment and values. When we look around us and at ourselves, we find that nearly all we say and do is in conformity with the beliefs and behavior of other members of our family, community or nation. The clothes we wear, the food we like, our habits, our choice of education and career, the way we greet friends or strangers, our codes of conduct, our judgments of other people, our sense of superiority or inferiority to others which depends on their relative wealth, class, education or caste – all these indicate that we are not distinct social individuals in the true sense. We compensate, of course, in many ways to convince ourselves and others of our uniqueness by affirming our favorite food, colour, dress, author, singer, actor, sportsman, etc. But these are only skin deep appearances. Individuality is not a surface difference. It is born and emerges from deep within us.
Compare the average Indian youth today with his counterpart in the West. The vast majority of American youth decide for themselves what college course to take and career to pursue. Why is it that so many Indian youth are lining up for computer science and medicine? Pressure from parents and peers, rather than personable preference, determines their choice. A good many Westerners even chose their own religion! The Dutch are proud to say that every Dutchman has his own political party, his own philosophy and his own religion.
When an American dentist told an Indian housewife living in Silicon Valley that her tooth had to be extracted, she said she would consult her husband. The dentist laughed at the notion that a grown up woman could not decide such a matter for herself. The basis for self-reliance and individuality are formed in early childhood. A visitor to America was surprised to see a nine-month old child already eating with a spoon when children back home still need to be fed by their mothers for years after birth.
A spirit of adventure, entrepreneurship and social independence are characteristics of the social individual. The early freedom fighters who dared to think that India could become Independent and a handful of industrialists such as Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata, who set up India’s first large-scale iron-works in 1901, were among the very few who displayed the attributes of social individuality. In the 19th Century those who traveled outside the country were condemned as impure. Until recently marrying one of another caste or religion was an unthinkable violation of social norms and even today it’s a rare exception. To quit a secure salaried job to become an entrepreneur is still considered by many an act of madness.
We become true mental individuals only when we think and form judgments based on our own mental outlook and understanding. Socrates was forced to consume hemlock for encouraging the youth of ancient Athens to think for themselves. Copernicus was mocked by the conventional society in which he lived when he asserted that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was condemned as a heretic and imprisoned for similar views. Martin Luther was ex-communicated from the Roman Church. Such has usually been the fate of the mental individual. Coming to one’s own judgment was anathema to the society of that day.
Even today true mental individuality is a rare phenomenon and rarely welcomed where it appears. When presented with a compellingly rational argument that challenged the conventional wisdom of modern science, the former president of a leading international academy of sciences replied: “This view is very interesting and rational, but it will not even be considered by scientists unless it is advocated by one of the leading scientists of the day.” By this he meant that scientists would judge the idea only in terms of the social prestige of the person who presented it, not on its own intrinsic merit. Social conformity, not individual rationality still rules the roost even in the highest academic circles. This points to the intimate relationship between the evolutionary emergence of mind and the emergence of individuality, which will be the theme of the next article in this series.
Beyond, there is the spiritual individual who transcends the limits of the physical, vital and mental. The spiritual individual is not bound by the physical limitations, social pressures or mental horizons of his day and age, not bound even by the limits of karma and ignorance. He lives in the knowledge and freedom of the spirit and is inspired and moved by that liberated consciousness. In India, the sannyasi has been the real leader. The rishi or yogi was the spiritual individual who imposed his spiritual inspiration on society in the guise of religion which was accepted by culture.
The explorer, the pioneer, the inventor, the entrepreneur, the social reformer, the political revolutionary, the thinker and the sannyasi are examples of individuality at the physical, social, mental and spiritual level. As isolated occurrences, they have appeared in all ages and all parts of the world. But only recently have the traits of true individuality begun to emerge as a widespread characteristic in the general population. It is the power of this emerging individuality that has transformed society over the past few hundred years, revolutionizing the social, political and economic life of humanity. It is the energy, resourcefulness and initiative born of individuality emerging in the masses of humanity that have made America prosperous and are now spreading prosperity around the globe.
The individual is not only the leader and instrument of social progress, scientific knowledge and spiritual liberation. He is the leader and instrument of the world’s spiritual evolution and the key to the ultimate divinization of life on earth.
A Brief History of Mind
“To be or not to be. That is the question.” Why has humanity been so long fascinated with Hamlet’s oft quoted words? Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most famous works of Western literature. During the 400 years since he wrote it, thousands of volumes have been written about this play. Almost every famous English author of the 18th and 19th Century has written commentary on it. Yet, even today, both the behavior of Hamlet in the story and the long standing popularity of the drama itself remain a mystery. When the young, noble Danish prince discovered that his father had been murdered by his uncle, why did he not immediately expose and avenge the crime and claim the throne for himself? Why is this simple revenge story considered great literature?
A spiritual perspective of human evolution provides a new and fascinating answer to these questions. Hamlet represents the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of Western society – the birth of thinking mind and the emergence of mental individuality in the human collective. Instead of immediately seeking to revenge his father’s death, Hamlet begins to contemplate the nature of human existence. He perceives the pretense and falsehood of society. He becomes conscious of his own personal defects. He comes to question the very purpose of life and action. All this is possible, because the thinking mind has been born in Hamlet and that mind is giving shape to his individuality.
Were this only a story of a fictitious Danish prince, it would hardly explain the popularity of the character or the play. But it is much more than that. Hamlet is a symbol captured in fiction of a real historical phenomenon that was occurring at the time the play was written – the collective development of thinking mind and mental individuality in Europe.
The world had great thinkers millennia before Shakespeare and Hamlet—Confucius, Aristotle, Shankara to name just a few. What then is different or special about this time? To answer that we need to examine a very brief history of mind.
The evolution of human consciousness began as a very slow development of the physical consciousness in man from the subconscious, instinctive state of higher animals. Primitive man created languages, tools, primitive arts, and rudimentary laws to govern the organization of society. These developments are obviously mental in character, but they were not the result of the thinking mind as we know it today. They resulted from the development of mind in the body, a thinking body that became conscious and learned from its physical and sensory experiences, not a thinking mind capable of abstract conceptual ideas.
In the next phase, which occurred over thousands of years, primitive the physical man evolved into the vital man in which human relationships and social organizations became more and more sophisticated and central to his existence. In this phase man developed a mind in the vital, a mind capable of thinking about other people, human relationships, and the governance of society. Institutions such as marriage, kingship, aristocracy, and trade were born during this phase. It culminated in great early civilizations such as Egypt, Persia and Babylonia.
Then came the Greeks and humanity has never been the same since. Ancient Greece excelled in all the accomplishments of earlier civilizations. They were superb physical athletes and valiant warriors who invented the Olympics and established a vast empire by conquest. They were also skillful traders, who acquired vast wealth from their exchanges with other nations, and excelled in the fine arts, especially the most physical arts such as architecture and sculpture. But the Greeks went further – they developed thinking mind and used it to explore the nature of life and society. They formulate new principles of government and were the first Western nation to establish a democracy. They explored and excelled in all fields of science – Pythagoras and Euclid in mathematics, Aristotle and Archimedes in physics, Galen and Hippocrates in medicine, etc. They conceived of the atom 2000 years before it was discovered. They believed that the earth revolved around the sun 1500 years before it was generally accepted as true. The greatest minds of ancient Greece -- Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – rank even today among the greatest thinkers the world has ever known.
Men of genius may have lived in earlier times and other climes, but in ancient Greece thinking mind emerged in the collective society as an endowment not limited to a rare few or confined to narrow fields of inquiry. In Greece, mind was placed on an altar as a God to be worshipped. Mind’s powers were investigated and applied to a wide range of issues, giving rise to the Hellenic civilization which has powerfully influenced the whole development of humanity over the last two millennia.
Greece was supplanted by the Roman Empire, which grew much larger and lived much longer than its predecessor, spreading all the way to the northern reaches of Europe, surviving for nearly 1000 years, and leaving a heritage in law and governance that forms the basis for much of modern civilization. It was the power of mind acquired from the Greeks that enabled the Romans to convert their tiny city-state into a vast empire. Greece developed and used the thinking mind to contemplate abstract ideas such as the principles of truth, love, beauty and justice. The Romans used the thinking mind to master the activities of life. They used the power of mind to organize their military into the most formidable the world had ever seen. They used the power of mind to formulate laws and create institutions for governance and public administration that are still followed even today. The Roman Empire marked the descent of thinking mind to elevate and organize life.
Roman domination was followed by a 1000 year period of apparent stagnation known as the Middle or Dark Ages. During this period, Christianity spread and established itself as a civilizing principle and institution throughout Europe and feudalism reigned as the predominate mode of social organization and governance. Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, we find that this was an essential period of social stability which prepared for and gave rise to the birth of mind and modern civilization.
The birth of the modern age can be traced back to the Renaissance which began in Italy early in the 15th Century and gradually spread throughout Western Europe. Here in the tiny city-states of coastal Italy, the developments of ancient Greece were rekindled and applied anew to create a highly creative, vibrant, flourishing society. Interest in the classical art forms of ancient Greece re-emerged and was followed by the greatest period of artistic creativity the world had ever seen, led by Michelangelo, Leonardo De Vinci and many others. The sciences revived alongside the arts. Copernicus and Galileo gave birth to modern astronomy. Leonardo conceived of a host of mechanical inventions that would become realities over the next 400 years. Democracy reemerged with new vigor. Trade flourished. The modern institution of banking was born.
The Renaissance was followed in quick succession by a series of radical social movements that have created the world as we know it today -- the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Democratic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. All these movements have one thing in common – they all represent the applications of the powers of the thinking mind to develop and elevate life. It was by the power of the thinking mind applied to the field of social life that Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation broke the stranglehold of Catholic religious superstition that had suppressed freedom of thought and discovery for 1000 years, empowering the thinking individual to consider and interpret religious doctrine according to the best light of his own mind. The ideal of universal education was born in Europe at this time. It was the power of the thinking mind applied to the study of nature that led to the explosion of new ideas and discoveries that constituted the birth of modern science and scientific organizations from the time of Newton. It was the power of the thinking mind that led free thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau to formulate the ideal principles of democratic government that spurred the French Revolution and now rule the world. And it was the power of thinking mind applied to the practical organization of production that led to all the successive technological innovations from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to the Computer Age and the growth of all forms and institutions of business enterprise that we know today.
Mind is that which distinguishes human beings from our animal ancestors. The evolution of human consciousness can be described as the gradual emergence of mentality in the body, life and mind of humanity, reaching its acme in the development of the pure thinking mind in ancient Greece. This ascent of consciousness has been followed by a progressive descent of the power of thinking mind from the development of theoretical, abstract ideas in ancient Greece to the application of mind to organize social life in the days of the Roman Empire and for the conquest of matter in modern times.
Somewhere along the way, the unique endowment of a few isolated thinkers became a widespread endowment characteristic of society-at-large. Today we have as many thinkers, writers and scientists as there were warriors in the armies of Alexander the Great. Today the transfer of knowledge is not confined to a few youth of Athens who received personal instruction from Socrates. Education is rapidly being extended to the entire population of the world. Today democratic ideals are being applied not just to the elite of Athens or the ruling aristocracy of Rome but to the whole of humanity. Today scientific thinking is not confined to a few men like Archimedes contemplating the nature of reality in his bath tub, but by millions of scientists around the world pursuing every conceivable branch of scientific inquiry and creating new fields as well. Today the art of invention is not limited to a few rare geniuses like Leonardo, but is being carried on globally on a daily basis in universities, research laboratories, corporations and even garage-scale home businesses.
Around the time of Hamlet, some 500 years ago, thinking ceased to be the sole prerogative and preoccupation of a rare few and became the common right and heritage of humanity as a whole. Since then society has taken great strides to enshrine the right to free thought, to impart through education the knowledge required for informed thinking, and to encourage the habit of thinking in its citizens, so that humanity as a whole may eventually acquire the endowment of mind which distinguishes us from the lower species.
The emergence of thinking mind has made possible the emergence of mental individuality in humanity. But this is not the end of the journey or the last stage in human evolution. Mind is only a transitional stage and point of departure for our further progress into the realm of spirit and the gradual emergence of the spiritual individual in humanity. While much of humanity has yet to acquire the capacity for conceptual thinking that forms the basis of true mental individuality, our real future likes beyond thought in the application of spiritual power to inform and elevate life. As the pioneers, adventurers, discoverers, inventors and thinkers of the past blazed new trails for humanity to follow, the future of humanity lies along a course that will be blazed and in territory that will be first settled by the spiritual individuals of tomorrow.
History is filled with examples of outstanding individuals who have changed the world around them. Often they had to act on their own, opposed by the powers that be and establish new centers of power to achieve their objectives. Ashoka, Socrates, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Gorbachev carried the stamp of individuality and the power it confers for evolutionary or revolutionary change. Imagine a nation of such individuals and we glimpse the magnificent creative potentials of humanity’s future. That may be a distant dream to be fulfilled in some future century, but the process has already begun. We find it most pronounced in Europe and North America where individuality has been recognized and proclaimed as a sacred human value.
Man is by nature a collective animal and his first instinct is to follow the herd. Our entire upbringing is designed to teach us to be, feel, think and act as others do. We are taught to behave properly, feel appropriately, act with decorum, think within the bounds of ‘reason’, which means within the boundaries and according to the precepts of those who have thought before us. Society fosters and insists on this conformity and punishes offenders by rebuke, ridicule, ostracism or even persecution.
Yet without individuals society cannot progress. Individual deviation is essential for social evolution in the same manner as mutant genes are required for biological evolution. Individuals are the catalysts of social development. It is the pioneers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, inventors, and original thinkers who break out of the traditional mold to do, think or say something new that ultimately changes the way society as a whole speaks, thinks, works and lives.
Jane Austen depicts the process of emerging individuality and its role in social evolution with brilliant insight in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. The setting for the story is rural England at the beginning of the 19th Century. Across the English Channel, French society is being wracked and razed by violent revolution, destroying the old aristocracy to break down the rigid boundaries between classes that protect a small elite aristocracy by denying rights and privileges to the lower classes. The same revolutionary battle cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ is spreading throughout Europe and threatening the existence of the aristocracy everywhere. England strives for a way to avoid the violence by a more peaceful evolutionary process. The events in Austen’s story depict at the micro level the subconscious process by which England converts revolutionary fervor into evolutionary social change.
Darcy is one of England’s wealthiest landowning aristocrats. It has been expected since his birth that he will marry his aunt’s sickly daughter in order to maintain the purity of his ancient bloodline and retain his vast wealth within the close family circle. Raised as lord of a magnificent estate, he has learned to maintain a respectable social distance and distaste for those who are below him in rank and wealth.
Mr. Bennet is an English gentleman who has married a lawyer’s daughter and used her dowry to raise his five daughters on their modest estate and limited income. His marriage to a businessman’s daughter reflects the evolutionary change in social attitudes that is already bridging the distance between aristocracy and middle class, creating a peaceful path for socially aspiring achievers and a source of renewed vigor for a declining landed gentry. Though socially permissible, the intermixture of classes is far from smooth and easy. The differences in culture between Mr. Bennet and his wife are a constant source of embarrassment to him and his two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, who take after their father in terms of education and breeding, while the two youngest daughters, Kitty and Lydia, have inherited their mother’s lack of manners and self-restraint.
At first sight Darcy dismisses Elizabeth as too ordinary in appearance and low in social origin for his attentions, while Elizabeth rejects him as offensively arrogant and aloof. Unknown and unsought by Elizabeth, Darcy learns to admire her fine eyes, intelligent wit, self-confidence and forthright demeanor. Despite his proud behavior and sense of superior breeding and his revulsion for the vulgarity of her mother and younger sisters, he inadvertently falls in love with her. Torn by a conflicting sense of attraction and repulsion, he eventually proposes. His words express the inner conflict he feels, resulting in a proposal that is clumsy and almost insulting. So confident is he of the attractions of his person, his position and his wealth that he is stunned by Elizabeth’s refusal. He is shocked to learn that she regards him with contempt as proud, selfish and mean-tempered. She abuses him for interfering with Jane’s marriage to his friend Bingley and for what she believes to be his unjust treatment of his steward’s son, Wickham.
Following her refusal, Darcy writes her a letter which exonerates him of Wickham’s accusation by disclosing Wickham’s devious attempt to elope with Darcy’s unwitting younger sister. His letter leaves Elizabeth more appreciative of Darcy and more painfully conscious of the uncultured behavior of her own family members. Darcy too reflects deeply on his own attitudes and behavior. He comes to regret his proud aloofness and look down on his own actions as selfish and mean. Out of love for Elizabeth he vows to repent and change himself.
For months they have no further contact until Elizabeth is invited by her aunt and uncle to a tour of the countryside near Darcy’s family estate, Pemberley. When Elizabeth experiences the magnificent grandeur of the place and hears further testimony to Darcy’s inherent goodness and generosity, she regrets her former attitude toward him. Within moments life responds to her change in attitude. Darcy arrives back from London unexpectedly and they meet cordially. He displays a warm, kind behavior toward both her and her relatives which both surprises and pleases her immensely.
Just when they are on the verge of a reconciliation that might quickly lead to an engagement, news comes that Lydia has eloped with Wickham. The disgrace associated with his event threatens to ruin the entire Bennet family and firmly convinces Elizabeth that Darcy will have nothing further to do with her. Unknown to herself and her family, Darcy overcomes his deep resentment for Wickham and his distaste for Lydia’s vulgarity and intervenes to save her reputation by persuading Wickham to marry her. He does so on condition that his role will not be disclosed to Elizabeth, but the secret comes out. She then realizes how much Darcy has sacrificed of his former pride in order to save her and her family. When he proposes marriage a second time, she accepts with gratitude and delight.
While the story is rich with insights into life and human nature, the most striking theme is the subconscious transformation of Darcy from a social character into a psychological individual. Darcy makes a progress in consciousness at the psychological level akin to that achieved in yoga at the spiritual level. He renounces the false or artificial sense of self-importance he derives from his social position and seeks to become a true, generous and self-giving person worthy of Elizabeth’s personal admiration. He gives up social values in favor of human values. Darcy becomes a true psychological individual in the sense that he no longer relies or depends on society to define what is good or reputable. He not only changes his behavior, giving up that which was offensive to Elizabeth, but goes to the other extreme of completely reversing it by embracing that which was previously repulsive to him. So real and great is his change of consciousness, that he acquires the magnanimity to accept a vulgar Mrs. Bennet, a wanton Lydia and a rogue Wickham as his own relatives and refuses to acknowledge, even to himself, their past sins or present unworthiness.
Darcy’s individual transformation becomes a catalyst for social evolution in England. By his own life and actions, he bridges the gap between the classes that was bridged only by the guillotine in revolutionary France. He is a representative pioneer whose actions usher in a future of greater freedom and equality for his countrymen.
The emergence of individuality is spreading around the world, but it remains at a nascent stage in India. What does it mean to be an individual in India today? Here are a few criteria by which one can evaluate himself and foster the evolution of Indian society.
- An individual thinks for himself and forms his own opinions of every social and national issue. He accepts an idea because he understands it to be right, not because it is spoken or endorsed by socially-important people or generally believed by others.
- An individual decides what is right on the strength of his own mental judgment, not on the basis of what others think and say, and he does what he knows to be right, not what others do or approve.
- An individual relies on himself rather than expecting others to support him and accepts from others only what is due to him.
- An individual judges himself in terms of what he knows himself to be as a human being, not on the basis of his wealth, occupation, status or what others say or think of him.
- An individual respects the individuality of those who disagree with him. When others criticize him, an individual takes it as the other person’s personal opinion and impartially evaluates the truth of the criticism, rather than taking it as an abuse that evokes his anger, defensiveness or resentment.
Becoming an individual is the highest human achievement short of spiritual realization, the most direct path to highest accomplishment in life, and a pioneering, patriotic service to the country.
Manners — Behavior — Character — Personality — Individuality
Human personality is like an onion. It consists of multiple layers that become denser as you go deeper within. Manners are a thin veneer on the surface, a set of formalized patterns of action and response demanded of each of us by the society we live in, regardless of how we actually feel inside, which is often very different from the outward manners we exhibit. Though manners are superficial, perfect conduct even at this level is extremely difficult. We may exhibit good manners on important occasions or with important people, but few are capable of maintaining perfect conduct all the waking hours with close friends, intimate family members, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, servants, etc. The world worships appearances and gives utmost value to good manners, even when they conceal the very opposite inner disposition. Self-restraint, soft speech, humble considerate behavior towards all, thoughtful gestures are extremely difficult to maintain as unvarying conduct. One who is a perfect master of good manners can by virtue of that endowment alone secure international fame and recognition.
Manners are on the surface. Behavior is on the depth of the surface. Whereas manners reflect conduct that the world expects or demands of us, behavior is conduct expressive of our inner attitudes and beliefs. What the society demands as manners develops into genuine behavior in the individual. Friendly manners may disguise inner anger or anguish because society frowns on their expression, whereas cheerful, warm behavior expresses genuine happy, positive attitudes towards oneself and others.
Character is behavior that one has accepted in the very depths of his being, in the substance, and allowed to take root there. The attitudes that express outwardly as behavior can change in an instant or over time, but the formed traits that constitute our character are lasting and extremely resistant to change, regardless of the circumstance. A fair weather friend behaves well in good circumstances, but a person of good character is incapable of conduct that is contrary to his deep-seated convictions. Character is Swabhava, the power and nature of the form, Swarupa. As manners can disguise our real attitudes, outer behavior can either reflect or veil our true character, i.e. what we really are inside. Character expresses most clearly in times of crisis or opportunity, when the surface veneer of manners and superficial behavior is swept aside by an external pressure or lure.
Character is largely inherited from family, community and the nation. It is worthwhile examining oneself in terms of our national character to see to what extent one’s own nature is representative of the collective. The American character is one that seeks a larger rhythm, rises to meet any challenge and perseveres until the work is done. In India, character is generally misunderstood to mean honesty or in a narrower sense reliability in conduct with women. It is used to refer to a person’s social or individual value, rather than to the entire layer of human nature that is deeply rooted and fixed behind our behavior.
Character is associated with capacity. One who accomplishes at any level or in any field relies on a stable capacity for effective action that is an expression of character. Character may express as professional ability in a given field, in which case the endowment is narrowly limited or fixed so that it cannot be transferred to any other field of accomplishment. But the skills and capacities that constitute the essence of character lie at a deeper level in the plane of personality. Endowments at the level of personality are not fixed and can be transferred from one field to another. The IAS officer exhibits an administrative personality capable of managing any type of assignment given to him. The able politician who rises to rule a nation often exhibits the political personality of administration.
Manners, behavior, character and personality are attributes one acquires from society, the external environment, what is philosophically referred to as Nature. Nature is the Becoming of the Being that is Purusha. Nature is force and therefore is fixed. It is ruled by karma. Manners, behavior, character and personality are attributes developed from below drawing their energy from Nature. Its acme is Personality.
Personality can also be shaped from above, by the Being. That personality which is energized by the Purusha or the Being from above is the Individuality of Man. At the spiritual level it is called the Individual Divine, Jivatma. At the level of mind and vital, it is known as Individuality. For citizens to acquire individuality in a society, that society should function in freedom. True individuality cannot be inhibited by religion, social norms, or family. The awakened soul acts in utter freedom. In the absence of freedom it does not awake. In the West, individuality is formed in a pronounced measure, especially in the USA. Personality drawing its energy from the spirit and expressing the evolutionary energy is Individuality. Freedom, self-reliance and the value of the individual are the urge of the evolutionary energy in our times. One reason why the Americans lead the world today is that their national culture embraces and expresses these values in such great measure, even though it is at the merest physical level.
As the spirit is fully developed in India, developing spiritual individuality is possible for the awakened Indian, awakened in his soul. Should the Indians awake in their souls and espouse Truth in their lives, they will emerge as spiritual individuals. That is the goal of the 21st Century.