Announcing a new dharma
In a letter dated 3 September 1943, when the conflagration of Second World War was still raging everywhere on the globe, Sri Aurobindo wrote about “a new Dharma which has only begun slowly and initially to influence practice – an infant dharma which would have been throttled for good if Hitler succeeded in his ‘Avataric’ mission and established his new ‘religion’ over all the earth.” This new dharma had to do with modern ideas, “the right of all to liberty, both individuals and nations, the immorality of conquest and empire,” (OH 397)1 with the new values of democratic freedom which were the principles of an evolutionary movement. The values Sri Aurobindo was writing about were those of the Enlightenment, which he opposed to the worldview Adolf Hitler and Nazism represented. “Hitler stands for diabolical values or for human values exaggerated in the wrong way until they become diabolical.” (OH 196)
“The assertion of his human dignity and freedom is a virtue man has only acquired by long evolution and painful endeavour,” (IHU 138) and which Sri Aurobindo did not want humanity to lose. This was the reason why he and the Mother had entered the war against the dark, asuric forces. “It is a struggle for the liberty of mankind to develop, for conditions in which men have freedom and room to think and act according to the light in them and grow in the Truth, grow in the Spirit. There cannot be the slightest doubt that if one side wins, there will be an end of all such freedom and hope of light and truth, and the work that has to be done will be subjected to conditions which would make it humanly impossible; there will be a reign of falsehood and darkness, a cruel oppression and degradation for most of the human race such as people in this country [i.e. India] do not dream of and cannot yet at all realize.” (OH 394) Shortly before he had written: “It does not seem to me that X is wrong in seeing in it the same problem as in Kurukshetra.” (OH 398)
“Liberty, equality, fraternity,” the motto which became the mantra of the French Revolution (started in 1789) may be seen as the summary of the ideals of the Enlightenment, as the quintessence of the thought of the Age of Reason in the West. It was also the culmination of centuries of human aspiration. These three words signified a first deliberate realization of the rational principle in individual and social human life, the access to a level not attained before in history. Their formulation and the effort to put them into practice did not result in their immediate fulfilment; the inherent inertia in humanity required its gradual effectuation in several subsequent revolutions (in 1830, 1848 and 1870), and even at present democracy is not exactly what the British and French philosophers, incorporating the Age of Reason, intuited.
None has more clearly seen and strongly affirmed the importance of this revolutionary mantra than Sri Aurobindo, who time after time insisted on the necessity of it being adhered to and worked out in humanity’s evolvement. We find this concern on many pages of his writings, especially in The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity. The Mother disclosed later on that the cause of Sri Aurobindo’s and her direct intervention in the Second World War had been the conservation of these revolutionary acquisitions for humanity, and that their part in that war, demanding their constant attention, had brought their Yoga to a standstill for the duration. So dangerous was the threat of the Asura to annihilate the new values, the first formulation of the new dharma, that Sri Aurobindo gave Hitler a fifty-fifty chance of success. Few are aware of the occult significance of the Second World War, the second act of the Great Twentieth Century War, which was the direct effect of the presence of the Avatar on the Earth and their initiation of a new period in human history. 2
In wanting to keep the status quo and humanity in bondage, the Asura, identified by the Mother as the Lord of Falsehood, had a relatively easy task, for there is what Sri Aurobindo called the “downward gravitation” in the still half-animal human being, the weight in him of his evolutionary past and constitution. “Relapse in this [downward] direction is always easy, because the assertion of his human dignity and freedom is a virtue man has only acquired by long evolution and painful endeavour; to respect the freedom of others he is still less naturally prone, though without it his own liberty can never be really secure; but to oppress and dominate where he can – often, be it noted, with excellent motives – and otherwise to be half dupe and half serf of those who can dominate, are his inborn natural propensities.” (IHU 138)
The letter of 3 September 1943 was not the first occasion on which Sri Aurobindo mentioned the action of the new dharma. It was an essential development in humanity he and the Mother had come to defend, foster and develop, and about which he had already written extensively in the Arya in quite different global circumstances. The First World War was then tearing mainly Europe apart, ignited by the Pan-German attitude of superiority and their unconditional demands on other nations, including the British Empire, which were themselves in turmoil. The democratic values, infants when one measured their age on the scale of history, came under attack for the first time in the twentieth century.
Part of Sri Aurobindo’s analysis of the then situation reads as follows: “This change in the movement and orientation of the world’s tendencies points to a law of interchange and adaptation and to the emergence of a new birth out of the meeting of many elements. Only those imperial aggregates are likely to succeed and eventually endure which recognize the new law and shape their organization to accord with it. Immediate victories of an opposite kind may indeed be gained and violence done to the law; but such present successes are won, as history has repeatedly shown, at the cost of a nation’s whole future. The recognition of the new truth had already commenced as a result of increased communication and the widening of knowledge. The value of variations had begun to be acknowledged and the old arrogant claims of this or that culture to impose itself and crush out all others were losing their force and self-confidence when the old outworn creed suddenly leaped up armed with the German sword to vindicate itself, if it might, before it perished … The seeds of a new order of things are being rapidly sown in the conscious mentality of the race.” (IHU 50, italics added)
A new law, a new truth, a new order of things – a new dharma. Sri Aurobindo has defined ‘dharma’ as “action controlled by our essential manner of self-being” (SY 191). “… Our dharma means the law of our nature and it means also its formulated expression.” (IHU 186) Our dharma is what we essentially are, not on the surface or according to our own idea of ourselves, but according to our specific and unique place and role in the divine manifestation as expressions of the manifesting Divine. The new law, truth, order of things is a new development of humanity in its gradual ascension towards the divinization of the evolutionary manifestation. In the dualities of our world, where every existent has the innate right to work itself out to the fullest, the old dharma had the right to attack the new dharma and try to suppress it. The divine incarnation in matter is “inevitable” – one of Sri Aurobindo’s keywords – but nefarious circumstances can postpone it for centuries or even millennia. This was precisely what Sri Aurobindo warned against during the Second World War. In other words, the forces representing the old dharma threatened his and the Mother’s initiation of a new evolutionary phase, beyond humanity as we know and live it, for which the new dharma was essential.
The old dharma
Then what was the old dharma, the law of the preceding evolutionary stages? The dominant characteristic of any form directly animated by the life-forces is its urge to assert its self-existence, to affirm its ego. This is the law of all living things, from the unicellular animals to the mammals; it is the law of the human being and its groupings, its societies. “… Men and nations have to act and think egoistically, because in their self-ignorance that is the only life known to them, and to live is their God-given impulse; therefore they must live egoistically rather than not at all, with whatever curb of law, ethics and practical common sense of self-restraint nature and experience have taught them. … Science investigating life discovered [in Darwinism] that the root nature of all living is a struggle to take the best advantage of the environment for self-preservation, self-fulfilment, self-aggrandizement.” (HC 46, 56)
Struggle and strife have been the main occupations of all life-forms, including the human, and this in all aspects and on all levels of existence. Culture has mostly been a thin coat of varnish on the underlaying need of self-affirmation and self-confirmation, from the times that the first humans had to survive in nature till now. To the Greeks sung by Homer, their strength and daring was their pride and justification of life. Of Genghis Khan (1167-1227), driven by the conviction that he was empowered by God, are the words: “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see their near and dear bathed in tears, to ride their horses and sleep with their women.” The fame and virtue of kings lay in the expansion of their lands. Greatness was an adornment of the ego.
“National egoism, the pride of domination and the desire of expansion still govern the mind of humanity,” wrote Sri Aurobindo in The Ideal of Human Unity, “however modified they may now be in their methods by the first weak beginnings of higher motives and a better national morality … It is idle to hope for a federation of free nations until either the present inequalities between nation and nation are removed or else the whole world rises to a common culture based upon a higher moral and spiritual status than is now actual or possible.” (IHU 79) There he wrote also that the egoistic side of human nature was “once all and [is] still nine-tenths of our being.” (IHU 127)
‘Others’ have always been instinctively held to be inferior, to be barbarians. Usually people, especially in peaceful times, see themselves as less egoistic, more humane and more civilized, until a sudden crisis puts their self-evaluation in doubt. Instances of genocide of ‘others’ are not lacking even in our recent history. The image humans have of themselves seldom admits that they are a “vital and emotional half-reasoning animal,” (IHU 127) albeit an ensouled one. The fact that humans are evolutionary beings has only become a common part of their self-view since the time that Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (in 1859). By then, Carolus Linnaeus had already classified Homo sapiens among the primates. The physiological resemblance with the apes is, of course, undeniable, however shocking when Darwin’s theory first entered the general awareness.
Religion and spirituality have been directly responsible for the unreality of the idea humans had about themselves, for most of the great Announcers and Realizers, aware of the difficulty the lower sheaths of the being posed to mastery and transcendence, did disregard and discard them. The body was a burden which had to be disposed of as soon as possible, and the general attempt in the incarnated life had to be one of escape. Soma sèma, the body is a tomb, is a famous dictum of Plato’s; the medieval poet complained about his body that it was as difficult to tame as a donkey; and these were only the less crude metaphors or descriptions. The ancient Indian seers knew about evolution, but humanity had to wait several millennia before this knowledge became re-integrated in its awareness, one of the signs that a new age was in the making.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the adventure of the soul as evolutionary, and of the human as an evolutionary being, took shape when Darwinism was still controversial, his theory apparently moribund, and the biological sciences in disarray. Here was a seer who changed the perspective of the spiritual eye from the allurement of a better life in the hereafter to earthly self-analysis, understanding and acceptance. The incarnation in material, vital and mental body-sheaths was given a rational justification. From a source of denial, spirituality became an effort at mastery and transformation of one’s own nature, and through one’s own nature of the world, which is also That, the manifestation of the Divine. It was recognized that “man was moulded from the original brute,” that “Inflicting still its habits on the cells / The phantom of a dark and evil start / Ghostlike pursues all that we dream and do.” (Sav. 158, 140) The complexity of the human being was accepted for what it truly was, and, as the self-confirmation of life equals ego, the mastery of the egoistic essence of the human nature became one of the main necessities and objectives of the spiritual endeavour.
Science (especially the biological sciences) has wiped out the image of a God which its reason could no longer accept, namely the Judeo-Christian autocratic God, apart from and above his creation. Given the suffering and injustice in the world, and the continuous strife and slaughter in human history, it had no difficulty in putting the omnipotence and benevolence of such a God in doubt. And reducing dogmatically reality to matter, it could not but deny all non-material phenomena, thus constructing a human environment with world-changing technological gains, but also with problems of the mind which it remains unable to solve.
For a while science accepted the idealistic humanitarianism of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress, essential to the nineteenth century. At present its gross materialism can provide no light to a world in confusion, and it has encapsulated itself in a dogmatism (scientism) as stringent as that of the religions it continues to oppose and ridicule. The human being is nothing but matter; its consciousness is, in one way or another, an epi-phenomenon of matter; the coming about of the human is due to a long string of inexplicable coincidences in an inexplicable universe. Nothing has meaning, nothing makes sense.
In Sri Aurobindo everything has meaning and everything makes sense, also the still half-animal human with his unflagging ego. “While Nature imposes the ego as a veil behind which she labours out the individual manifestation of the spirit, she also puts a compulsion on it to grow in being until it can at last expand or merge into a larger self in which it meets, harmonizes with itself, comprehends its own consciousness, becomes one with the root of existence.” (HC 167) “When this ego pivot is abandoned and this ego-hunt ceases, then man gets his first real chance of achieving spirituality in his inner and outer life. It will not be enough, but it will be a commencement, a true and not a blind entrance” (HC 255) – to a new, higher and finally fully enjoyable stage of terrestrial existence.
The new dharma
The new dharma is that of an earthly existence without ego. “The absence or abolition of separated egoism and of effective division in consciousness is the one essential condition of the divine life …” wrote Sri Aurobindo. (LD 169) The divine life is the next step of life on Earth, which Sri Aurobindo showed to be the logical and inevitable sequel of the incarnated gradations of consciousness realized by the terrestrial evolution, including Homo sapiens. We saw above that Sri Aurobindo defined the ego as the “pivot” of our present way of being, that which makes us into an individual and orients or structures the world around us. Elsewhere he wrote of the ego as “the lynch-pin invented to hold together the motion of the wheel of nature,” and as “the most formidable of the knots which keeps us tied to the Ignorance.” (LD 574, 584) But it is also a precondition for the possibility of existence of the lower life-forms, to which the human being for a considerable part still belongs. “He has to put on the temporal, the psychological, the egoistic ignorance in order to protect himself against the light of the infinite and the largeness of the universal, so as to develop behind this defence his temporal individuality in the cosmos.” (LD 612)
To overcome the ego is a formidable, not to say quasi-impossible task. “To renounce one’s ego is the same as dying for somebody who is not ready to do so,” said the Mother. (E50/79) For it is the axis of the ego which gives meaning and direction to our world, which influences all our actions and the way we perceive and assess things. Not to be “I” seems equivalent to not being anything. And is not much of religion and spirituality an act of egoism, for instance the attempt to escape from the incarnated life into the real or imaginary beatitudes of worlds hereafter, leaving the world and the fellow humans to their fate?
The ego formation has been nature’s way of producing separate, individual life-forms. It is, after all, the ego-consciousness which makes us aware of ourselves, of what we physically and psychologically exist of, of what makes us specific. This was the reason why the Mother said: “One cannot melt one’s ego in the Divine without being completely individualized. … One must first exist before one is able to give oneself.” (E54, 293, 296) “The ego was necessary to form humanity … Now the ego has finished its work. It has done its work well. It must disappear,” (Ag13, 152) to be replaced by another, higher consciousness.
Turning back to the ideals of the Enlightenment discussed in the beginning, it should now be clear that they were a first conscious step towards the surmounting of the ego, individually and socially. As such, they were a basic necessity for opening the gates of humanity’s future on an existence and a world beyond the present the ego-determined, still half-animal being that is Homo sapiens. The obstruction of this evolutionary step forward would have blocked all hope of a better world, as it would have rendered Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s work impossible. “Man needs freedom of thought and life and action in order that he may grow; otherwise he will remain fixed where he was, a stunted and static being.” (HC 211) “Europe has obeyed one great law of Nature’s progressive march, her trend towards a final equality. Absolute equality is surely neither intended nor possible, just as absolute uniformity is both impossible and utterly undesirable; but a fundamental equality which will render the play of true superiority and difference inoffensive, is essential to any conceivable perfectibility of the human race.” (IHU 18)
However, “the third and most neglected term of the famous revolutionary formula” is the most important: fraternity, a word which Sri Aurobindo sometimes replaces by (inner) “unity” or “oneness.” “Perhaps liberty and equality, liberty and authority, liberty and organized efficiency can never be satisfactorily reconciled so long as man individual and aggregate lives by egoism, so long as he cannot undergo a great spiritual and psychological change and rise beyond mere communal association to that third ideal which some vague inner sense made the revolutionary thinkers of France add to their watchwords of liberty and equality – the greatest of all three, though till now only an empty word on man’s lips, the ideal of fraternity or, less sentimentally and more truly expressed, an inner oneness. That no mechanism social, political, religious has ever created or can create; it must take birth in the soul and rise from hidden and divine depths within.” (IHU 113)
The meaning of these words, written a century ago, becomes poignant at a time when the destiny of humanity on planet Earth, and the continued existence of the planet itself as bearer of life, turns out to be questionable. Here the practice of spirituality is no longer an individual choice or adventure, but a matter of survival and continuance for the human species. “Until man in his heart is ready, a profound change of the world conditions cannot come; or it can only be brought about by force, physical force or else force of circumstances, and that leaves all the real work to be done.” (IHU 283) Human unity is the prime condition for the realization of the age-old dreams of humanity, which will remain dreams “so long as man individual and aggregate lives by egoism, so long as he cannot undergo a great spiritual and psychological change and rise beyond mere communal association.” (IHU 113)
The French revolutionary ideals, spread through humanity as the foundations of democracy, are a telling sign that the evolutionary movement in humanity is ready for the momentous change of accessing a new era, a new level of conciousness and being. Equally telling are the unification of humanity and the divulgation of the spiritual means – the all-important treasure discovered and preserved in India – to turn unity into a reality. It is still little realized that the necessary prelude to this human unity was the integration of the four varnas, commonly called castes, worked out in Europe and now applied everywhere else. The castes of the clerics (brahmins) and knights (kshatriyas), traditionally dominant, were displaced by the merchants or bourgeois (vaishyas) in the French Revolution, and the lowest caste, the proletarians (shudras), completed the body of humanity as its self-aware and effective members soon afterwards through the movements of socialism and communism. This process of integration was the pre-condition for the one soul of humanity to grow in its one body.
“The coming of a spiritual age must be preceded by the appearance of an increasing number of individuals who are no longer satisfied with the normal intellectual, vital and physical existence of man, but perceive that a greater revolution is the real goal of humanity and attempt to effect it in themselves, to lead others to it and to make it the recognized goal of the race. In proportion as they succeed and to the degree to which they carry this evolution, the yet unrealized potentiality which they represent will become an actual possibility of the future.” (HC 261)
1. The abbreviations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s works refer to the follwing editions: E: Entretiens 1953, 1975 – IHU: The Ideal of Human Unity, 1998 – HC: The Human Cycle, 1998 – LD: The Life Divine, CW – OH: On Himself, 1972 – Sav: Savitri, 1993 – SY: The Synthesis of Yoga, 1976 – Ag: The Mother’s Agenda, 1982.
2. See Georges Van Vrekhem: Hitler and His God – The Background to the Hitler Phenomenon (Rupa & Co, New Delhi).