Psychological Cycle and Evolution of Civilization: Sri Aurobindo on History
by C I Issac on 20 Feb 2010 5 Comments

Sri Aurobindo unlocked the essentials of his new message for humanity and its glorious prospect predominantly through his writings which reflected his brilliance as an academician, poet, philosopher, revolutionary, patriot, creative thinker and above all, a Maha-yogi. Most of all, he found space in his textual treatise to analyze the process of historical evolution that has taken place in our nation through ages. Many of us have either ignored or not properly accounted his perspectives on history. He used History purposefully. The patriotic fervour that glittered in him sought to prepare his fellow beings to break the yoke of alien forces of all types. He used History to accomplish this end. This study seeks to understand the contemporary epistemological relevance of his views on History.


Sri Aurobindo’s writings are superb because of his masterful command over the English language, foolproof control over vocabulary, sharp intellect, yogic insight and love for humanity. C.R. Das once called him “the poet of patriotism, the prophet of nationalism and a lover of humanity”. His vibrant patriotic zeal caused Lord Minto to regard him as “the most dangerous man we now have to reckon with.” Aurobindo’s patriotic temper broke the boundaries of British political tolerance; he was imprisoned from 1908 to 1909. This became a turning point in his life as Arabinda Ghosh [Sri Aurobindo] underwent a series of spiritual experiences that changed the course of his life. After release from detention, he commented that the only result of the wrath of the British Government was that “I found God”.


As in other social sciences, in history too, scholars have a Eurocentric approach which has crippled the knowledge system. To Indians, epistemology as a whole is an integral portion of spiritualism. “With us religion is the only ground along which we can move... the Hindu can understand even politics when it is given through religion; sociology must come through religion, everything must come through religion” [1]. Religion to the Indians is not mere outward exercise, but a spiritual state of mind to fit for realization of the Ultimate [2].


As far as the corpus of history is concerned, all facts in its annals are sacred and are silent until interpreted. How to interpret facts is the question before us. In the post-colonial period, some fundamental premises and methods of Orientalist historiography still haunt us. To understand the past of a nation [geographical unit of historical analysis], we should get acquainted with its cultural and social system. In Indian historiography, historians since colonial times have used Eurocentric colonial or Marxian tools, or plagiaristic variants. Since the freedom struggle, a strong opinion developed amongst scholars for an Indo-centric approach to the study of history with tools bearing native socio-cultural and political perceptive.  


Sri Aurobindo’s vision and outlook towards education favoured education through the mother tongue, the proper medium. He believed education should lay a base for the study of history, science, philosophy, art, but not in a conspicuous and formal mode. “Every child is a lover of interesting narrative, a hero-worshipper and a patriot. Appeal to these qualities in him and through them let him master without knowing it the living and human parts of his nation's history” [3]. The wide spectrum of epistemology was broadly divided into knowledge of men and knowledge of things. The knowledge of men was “human thought, human actions, human nature and human creations as recorded, preserved or pictured in literature, history, philosophy and art roofed under the humanities” [4]. He believed that the ideal of liberal education will be complete only through a wise and appropriate imparting of knowledge of men and knowledge of things.


Aurobindo identified the general pattern of history and sociology by giving priority to external data, laws, institution, rites, customs, economic factors and developments. The deeper psychological elements so important in the activities of a mental, emotional, ideative being like man have been much neglected in history. The motive force behind the French Revolution is the 18th century philosophic movement and writings of Rousseau and Voltaire, than the economic necessity of France [5]. While discussing the French Revolution, Aurobindo comments, “History which, being European, lays much stress on events, a little on Speech, but has never realized the importance of Souls, cannot appreciate men like Danton. Only the eye of the seer can pick them out from the mass and trace to their source those immense vibrations” [6]. He substantiate this by citing the popularity and social acceptance of the French playwright Alexandere Dumas’ history [7].


Aurobindo is concerned about a scientific approach to our history for the revitalization and empowerment of the nation. He dreamed of a glorious India. “Sociology does not help us, for it only gives us the general story of the past and the external conditions under which communities have survived. History teaches us nothing; it is a confused torrent of events and personalities of a kaleidoscope of changing institutions” [8]. India had an abundant source material of its past. The only task left is the proper interpretation and utilization of it. “In spite of the defect the greatness and activity of the past life of India reveals itself and comes out in bolder relief the more the inquiry into her past…” [9].


He aimed a social psychological approach instead of individual. “Scientific history has been conceived as if it must be a record and appreciation of the environmental motives of political action, of the play of economic forces and developments and the course of institutional evolution. The few who still valued the psychological element have kept their eye fixed on individuals and are not far conceiving of history as a mass of biographies” [10]. Further, he believed in the Indian epistemological tradition and suggested spiritual approach to history. “The History and study of man like the history and study of Nature leads towards the perception of the eternal and universal Power and Being whose thought and will work out through the cosmic and human evolution” [11].


Aurobindo believed that behind every social and historical development, even if it has economic reasons, are profound perceptions of psychological, even perhaps soul factors. The metropolis of rationalism and materialism of pre-war Germany for the first time conceived and debated the psychological theory of history. The original intelligence of Karl Gottfried Lamprecht [1856-1913] was behind this marvellous idea on history. He believed psychological forces as the fundamental forces in all history, but they derived from the collective psyche of every nation and not from the idiosyncratic forces of individual psyche.


Similarly he opposed the notion of heroes in history and supported a history based on broad social, cultural and psychological trends; his attempt was seldom completely successful. He failed to convince other historians. Sri Aurobindo was impressed: “He was still haunted by a sense of the greater importance of the economic factor, and like most European Science his theory related, classified and organized phenomena much more successfully than it explained them. Nevertheless its basic idea formulated a suggestive and illuminating truth, and it is worthwhile following up some of the suggestions it opens out in the light especially of Eastern thought and experience” [12].


A psychological cycle is behind the development of a culture or nation. On this conceptual terrain, Lamprecht termed the distinct psychological stages correspondingly as symbolic, typal, conventional, individualistic and subjective. This theorization used the experience of European and particularly German History under the hypothesis that human society progresses through certain distinct psychological stages.


Aurobindo earnestly analyzed Lamprecht in the light of Indian history. He observed, “Such classifications are likely to err by rigidity and to substitute a mental straight line for the coils and zigzags of Nature. The psychology of man and his societies is too complex, too synthetical of many-sided inter-mixed tendencies to satisfy any such rigorous and formal analysis. Nor does this theory of psychological cycle tell us what is the inner meaning of its successive phases or the necessity of their succession or the term and end towards which they are driving. …” [13].


Lamprecht was absolutely different from the Marxian approach. Marx, in a strict sense, was not a philosopher of higher order like Sri Aurobindo. “Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has great shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time, his purview is confined to this planet, within this planet, to Man. Since Coppernicus, it has been evident that man has not the cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No Man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call this philosophy scientific” [14]. Thus Marxian ideology is exclusively of dialectical materialism, an offshoot or a step forward of Hegelian ideology, applied as tool of analysis [historical materialism] to study history. Let us examine how Sri Aurobindo approached the same ideology that Lamprecht failed to convince his contemporaries.


Aurobindo strongly believed in the inevitable evolution of humanity through three stepladders - infra-rational, rational and supra-rational. The five distinct psychological stages of history presented by Lamprecht were incorporated in the three rational levels of human evolution by him, though this division is not watertight compartments, but overlapping, interdependence and interregnum. As the history of terrestrial life is an admixture of intangibility and complexity, he incorporated the first three psychological stages [mentality] explained by Lamprecht, namely symbolic, typal and conventional, into the infra-rational [below rational] stage of human progress. The symbolic period is pre-modern but not an age of savagery. The fourth of the cycle, individualistic, is the attribute of rational space. Subjective, the final, will be the inheritance of the supra-rational stage of civilization.




This psychological stage according to Aurobindo falls under the infra-rational stage of human progress explicitly under the Indian situation. The “Symbolic stage of this evolution is predominantly religious and spiritual; the other elements, psychological, ethical, economic, physical are there but subordinated to the spiritual and religious ideas” [15]. Marx defined this observable fact as ‘primitive communism’. But Aurobindo is reluctant to see it in the Marxian perspective. For him, in India this stage represents the Rig Vedic period. The invocations of Vedas are symbolic in character. The early stage of human social development finds strongly emblematic approaches that presides over or at least permeates its thought, customs and institutions.


This social phase is constantly religious and actively imaginative in its religion. Symbolism and widespread imaginative or intuitive religious feeling have a natural kinship, and especially in primordial formations, they have gone always together [16]. “All these religious and social institutions, all the moments and phases of his life are to him symbols in which he seeks to express what he knows or guesses of the mystic influences that are behind his life and shape and govern or at the least intervene in its movements” [17]. He strongly persists that before the spontaneous awareness of the Vedic Rishis [seers] cosmological realities experience in the form of symbols. The society as a whole had not reached a higher level of awareness, the omniscient seers’ farsightedness reflects well in the symbolic stage of our history.




Aurobindo verified that explicitly under the Indian situation, this psychological phase of human progress falls under the infra-rational stage. The changeover from symbolic to typal was unprompted and steady. In this stage early symbols acquired concrete shapes. The result was the birth of four-fold caste system [chaturvaniam] and its innate link with the all-prevailing Prime Substance [Viraadapurusha]. Here chaturvaniam functions well as undisruptive and creative social mechanism.


“Typal is predominantly psychological and ethical; all else, even spiritual and religious, is subordinate to the psychological idea and to the ethical ideal which express it. Religious becomes then a mystic sanction for the ethical motive and discipline…” [18]. Aurobindo identifies this stage of evolution as the epic-puranic age. In this age the idea of the direct appearance of the Divine Being or Cosmic Principle in man ceases to dictate. This trend gradually retreats and finally disappears from practice and in the end even from the theory of life [19]. “This typal stage creates the great social ideals which remain impressed upon the human mind even when the stage itself is passed. The principal active contribution it leaves behind when it is dead is the idea of social honour; …” [20]. In due course of time it deteriorated and finally gave way to the other stage.




This psychological stage was the last phase of the infra-rational stage of human progress in the Indian experience; the longest phase of our history. The conventional stage of human society is born when the external supports, the outward expressions of the spirit, ritualistic observances, etc become more important than the Dharma. In short, the body or even the clothes acquired more significance than the person. Thus in the evolution of caste system, the outward supports of the ethical fourfold orders - birth, economic function, religious ritual and sacrament, family, custom - each began to inflate extremely its magnitude and significance in the new schema [21].


The visible feature of this transition was the transformation of the positive notions of chaturvaniam, values and quality, legitimization of birth factor to decide the social role/status of an individual. Thus unequal relations became the base of the dominant/ruling ideology of society. Consequently Smriti literatures, an instrument of unequal treatment and synonym of discrimination, justified this through ages. It overshadowed the values and relevance of Sruti [Vedas] from the broad canvas of Indian social living.


The predisposition of the conventional age of society is to fix, to arrange firmly, to formalize and to erect a system of rigid grades and hierarchies. Further, its interference in faith resulted in the birth of stereotype religion. It did not spare education and training and fixed it to a traditional and unchangeable type. Again it subject thinking to infallible authorities and to emanate a stamp of finality on what seems to it the finished life of man [22]. This period covered a long duration of Indian history, and gave way to another psychological stage in the 19th century. Before the rational age every established convention was questioned or challenged. Aurobindo believed such a change resulted in the birth of Indian renaissance of the 19th century, and that it was much indebted to the European renaissance [23]. “The conventional period of society has its golden age when the spirit and thought that inspired its forms are confined but yet living, not yet altogether walled in, not yet stifled to death and petrified by the growing hardness of the structure in which they are cased” [24].




Sri Aurobindo incorporated this stage in the rational phase of psychological evolution. He observed that “an individualistic age of human society comes as a result of the corruption and failure of the conventional, as a revolt against the reign of the petrified typal figure” [25]. In the European experience it surfaced as a revolt of reason, and resulted in the Industrial and Scientific Revolution.


The dawn of individualism experienced through the questioning of established mores. “The individual finds a religion imposed upon him which does not base its dogma and practice upon a living sense of ever verifiable spiritual Truth, but on the letter of an ancient book, the infallible dictum of a Pope, the tradition of a Church, the learned casuistry of schoolmen and Pundits, … but none of whom seems to think it necessary or even allowable to search, test, prove, inquire, discover” [26]. The West witnessed a flood of revolt as a reaction to its age-old oppressive regimes and its exploitative and unequal relations that governed the socio-economic relations of the day [27].


Individualism in Europe is to a certain extent embedded with questioning the authority of the Church. “For eventually, the evolution of Europe was determined less by the Reformation than by the Renaissance; it flowered by the vigorous return of the ancient Greco-Roman mentality of the one rather than by the Hebraic and religio-ethical temperament of the other” [28]. The ancient Greek mindset that dominated with free curiosity is the legacy of Renaissance which helped Europe acquire the spirit of reason and Rome’s large judiciousness and sense for the ordering of life in harmony with a robust utility; it totally transformed the West.


This age in Europe was seen as a movement against dogmatism and subsequently against the authoritarianism of the Church. “The movement of religious freedom in Europe took its stand first on a limited, then on an absolute right of the individual experience and illumined reason to determine the true sense of the inspired Scripture and the true Christian ritual and order of the Church” [29].


Theological reasoning supported this movement in the West. Contrary to the West, in the East, particularly in India, philosophical reasoning supported this change. The West witnessed material progress. Thus they failed to identify Truth/Soul and cultivated pride and arrogance. The result was all material progress that they archived hitherto through the new spirit of reasoning turned as mechanism of antagonism and mass destruction. This gave way to an ‘evolutionary crisis’ in the new order.


“Therefore in every individualistic age of mankind there is imperative the search for two supreme desiderata. It must find a general standard of Truth to which the individual judgment of all will be inwardly compelled to subscribe without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority. And it must reach some principle of social order which shall be equally founded on a universally recognizable truth of things; an order is needed that will put a rein on desire and interest by providing at least some intellectual and moral test which these two powerful and dangerous forces must satisfy before they can feel justified in asserting their claims on life. Speculative and scientific reason for their means, the pursuit of a practicable social justice and sound utility for their spirit, the progressive nations of Europe set out on their search for this light and this law” [30]


The space of rationalism was occupied by a period of individualism for a short duration in the case of India. According to individualism the individual is not merely a social unit. “His existence, his right and claim to live and grow are not founded solely on his social work and function. He is not merely a member of a human pack, hive or ant-hill; he is something in himself, a soul, a being, who has to fulfill his own individual truth and law as well as his natural or his assigned part in the truth and law of the collective existence He demands freedom, space, initiative for his soul…” [31]. This is no longer acknowledged by Fascists or Communists. To them the individual is simply a cell or an atom of the social body.


Here the 19th century Renaissance was pioneered under spiritual leadership. According to Sri Aurobindo, “It is in Europe that the age of individualism has taken birth and exercised its full sway; the East has entered into it only by contact and influence, not from an original impulse” [32]. But it differed too much from Europe. India had a strong network of spiritual leadership spread over all regions and ages starting from Swami Vivekananda to Sri Narayana Guru. Discriminative, undemocratic and authoritarian institutions challenged spiritual power. Gandhiji’s fight for national freedom incorporated the fight against the social anomaly of untouchability. He used spiritualism in his fight against this curse: “Untouchability is a crime against man and God”.


The East awakened from its torpor and produced a struggle between an imported Western individualism and the old conventional principle of society. The impact was the birth of something quite different from Western individualism; the signs are that the individualistic period in the East will be neither of long duration nor predominantly rationalistic and secularist in character. “Whatever that effect may be, it will not be in favour of any re-ordering of society on the lines of the still current tendency towards a mechanical economism which has not ceased to dominate mind and life in the Occident. The influence of the East is likely to be rather in the direction of subjectivism and practical spirituality, a greater opening of our physical existence to the realization of ideals other than strong but limited aims suggested by the life and the body in their own gross nature” [33].


Subjective age


Sri Aurobindo put side by side the proposition of Lamprecht’s psychological stage of evolution – the subjective age - with supra-rational age. It highlights the need for an overall advancement of the human mind towards a higher level of perfection. He believes it is an inevitable and natural process, like all hitherto stages of evolution. This is the right time to accelerate the speed of evolution towards supra-rational phase. He did not agree fully with Freud’s Psychoanalysis. He believed the attempt to analyze the unconscious mind instead of super mind will not produce any desired result. “Man is a mental as well as a physical and vital being and even much more essentially mental than physical or vital” [34]. The domination of ‘vital ego’ in dominant minorities neutralized almost all western rational and ideological patterns like equality, fraternity, liberty along with its applied political philosophies like socialism, communism and democracy.  


He believed economic state and social institutions are themselves governed by psychological demand. “To find the truth of things and the law of his being in relation to that truth he must go deeper and fathom the subjective secret of himself and things as well as their objective forms and surroundings” [35]. Therefore the knowledge of the physical world is not total knowledge. The art, music and literature of the world are a sure index of the vital tendencies of the age [36]. All these must spiritualize society.


The emerging subjectivism preparative of the new age has shown itself not so much in the relations of individuals. All are still largely rationalistic and materialistic and only vaguely touched by the deeper subjective tendency. The nation is the organic past of man. But in the new collective self-consciousness of man “has already begun to produce powerful results whether as a vitalistic or as a physical subjectivism, and it is here that we shall see most clearly what is its actual drift, its deficiencies, its dangers as well as the true purpose and conditions of a subjective age of humanity and the goal towards which the social cycle, entering this phase, is intended to arrive in its wide revolution” [37].


Sri Aurobindo was not a historian. As patriot and seer he dreamed of a prosperous and powerful India, and used history for his divine mission. He identified our lapses in the approach to history - ancestral disrespect as well as modern Euro-centric approach. The courts of ancient India had no paid or professional chroniclers. Thus history has not been recorded as in the West, but this does not mean that the art of history was entirely neglected.


Ancient India did not follow the Herodotus-Thucydides model of conventional historiography as a necessary discipline [38]. Indians never kept records of the doings of kings, great men and peoples prior to the arrival of Sultans of Delhi, the sole exception being ancient Kashmir. “This is certainly a defect and leaves a very serious gap. India has lived much, but has not sat down to record the history of her life. Her soul and mind have left their great monuments, but so much as we know – and after all it is not little – of the rest, the more outward things, remains or has emerged recently in spite of her neglect; such exact records as she had, she allowed to rust forgotten or disappear” [39].


This lapse was common in most ancient civilizations, “…but nobody suggests that Egypt, Assyria or Persia have to be reconstructed for us by the archaeologists for an analogous reason. The genius of Greece developed the art of history, though only in later period of her activity, and Europe has cherished and preserved the art …” [40]. The history of civilized society in India starts long before the Greeks practising the art of history. From our part, any sincere effort for a total history must include the study of Nature and man and lead towards the perception of the eternal and universal Power and Being whose thought and will work out through cosmic and human evolution.



1] Swami Vivekananda, Selections from the Complete Works, 15th Impression, 1998, p 297

2] “Religion is not going to church or putting marks on the forehead or dressing in peculiar fashion: you may paint yourselves in all the colours of the rainbow, but if the heart has not been opened, if you have not realized God, it is all vain.” Ibid, p 242

3] Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 17, “The Hour of God”, Birth Centenary Library, Pondicherry, 1970, p 214, 215

4] Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 3, “The Harmony of Virtue”, Birth centenary Library, Pondicherry, 1970, p 128

5] Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-determination; Pondicherry, 6th Edn. 1992, p 1

6] Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 17, “The Hour of God”, op cit, Chapter 'On French Revolution', p 380

7] “Dumas’ “history” is all slap and dash adventure – amusing rather than solidly interesting. But it is all the history known to many people in France – just as many England gather their history from Shakespeare's plays”. 2-12-1934. [Father and son Dumas were dramatist and novelists of the nineteenth century France]. Sri Aurobindo’s Letters on Poetry, Literature and Art, [1971] Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, 3rd Impression, 1994.

8] Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, op. cit., p 261

9] Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture, Pondicherry, 3rd edn., 5th impression 1985, p 190-191

10] Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, op cit, p 31

11] Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 20, “The Synthesis of Yoga”, Birth Centenary Library, Pondicherry, 1970, p 493

12] Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, op. cit., p 1, 2

13] Ibid, p 2

14] Bertrand Russell [Bertrand AW Russell 1872-1970], A History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York, 1946, p 788 [cited in P. Parameshwaran, Disaaboodhathinte Darsanam - Mal.-, Calicut, 1999, p 29]

15] Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, op. cit., p 6

16] Ibid, p 3

17] Ibid.

18] Ibid, p 6

19] Ibid, p 7

20] Ibid.

21] Ibid.

22] Ibid, p 8

23] “It is Europe that the age of individualism has taken birth and exercised its full sway; the East has entered into it only by contact and influence, not from an original impulse”. Ibid p 11

24] Ibid, p 8

25] Ibid p 11

26] Ibid, p 12

27] “In politics he finds everywhere divine rights, established privileges, sanctified tyrannies which are evidently armed with an oppressive power and justify themselves by long prescription, but seem to have no real claim or little to exist”. “In social order he finds an equality stereotyped reign of convention, fixed disabilities, fixed privileges, the self-regarding arrogance of the high, the blind prostration of the low, while the old functions which might have justified at one time such a distribution of status are either not performed at all or badly performed without any sense of obligation and merely as a part of caste pride. He has to rise in revolt; …….”. Ibid, p 12, 13

28] Ibid, p 15

29] Ibid, pp 13, 14

30] Ibid, pp 15, 16

31] Ibid, p 20

32] Ibid, p 11

33] Ibid, p 19

34] Ibid, p 23

35] Ibid

36] Ibid, p 25

37] Ibid, p 28

38] “The whole conception of history in ancient India was influenced by the speculative and ethical trends of philosophy and religion. Little importance was attached to writing chronicle or the compilation of a bare record of events”. Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, V Edn., Calcutta, 1948, pp 74, 75

39] Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture, op. cit., p 190-191

40] Ibid.


The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum

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