Study of World History– Towards a New Approach—M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in Mother India.]

Key Perspectives: Nature of History; Use of the Past; History as Philosophy; Two Schools of History; Religious View of History; Secular and Scientific Approach to History; Our Approach.

In our modern techno-commercial culture the study of history has lost its appeal for young minds. There are many reasons for this lack of interest in history among modern youth. The first reason is the lack of employment opportunities for the scholars of history. In our industrial age where education is no longer the great instrument of culture, but reduced to the status of an instrument of “economic growth” for  producing efficient, skilled and productive workers for industry and commerce, history is possibly the least “job-oriented” among the fields of knowledge. But even among students who are less job oriented and more inclined towards research and pursuit of knowledge, history holds no attraction because it is viewed as the knowledge of the past with little relevance for the present or future.

But is this the value of history? Is it a mere record of the past with no value for the present or future? Does this flow of events, people, ideas, achievements, failures, calamities and euphoria of the past has any meaning at all or as one of the characters of Shakespeare contends, is it a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing? In this project we will be exploring an approach and a vision of History based on Sri Aurobindo’s insights, which will make the study of history into an exciting and meaningful intellectual voyage into the past experiences and the future destiny of humanity.

 The Nature of History

What is precisely the nature of history? There are many ways of looking at history. The angle of vision depends on our view of man and his progress on earth. The angle we want to explore views man as a living conscious organism seeking for progressive fulfillment or self-realisation, and in the process developing his potentialities and evolving towards his terrestrial destiny. For Man, since the day he stood erect on earth, is seeking for some form of fulfillment and his history is the story of his eternal seeking for fulfillment. The human march through history is the record of this progressive seeking of man, his effort and struggle, his successes and failures, in his search for fulfillment of his body, mind and soul.

The first and the most primitive seeking of man is the effort towards survival and security and the fulfillment of his basic instincts and the needs of his body. This is the source of a large part of early economic history and the beginning of social history. When these basic needs of his body are to a certain extent fulfilled he seeks for a greater enjoyment of life. This is the other major motive behind the economic history of man especially of the modern age. The need for wealth is the more external expression of this inner need for enjoyment. For man seeks for wealth not for its own sake but for the means it gives for the better enjoyment of life. At present, this need for enjoyment has grown into a multi-billion dollar business in what is now called as the leisure and entertainment industry.

 As the human being progresses in his consciousness he becomes aware, successively or simultaneously, of two major cluster of needs of his life-force or vital being. First are the needs of the life-force in the heart of man for love and to be loved, and some form of mutually beneficial and harmonious relationship with others. This is the source of the later part of social history. The second clusted of life-needs are the needs of the life-force in the will and the pragmatic mind in man for power, conquest, mastery, order, efficiency, expansion and progress. This is the source of political history and also much of economic history of the modern age.

Again, as the human being progresses further up in the evolutionary ladder, he becomes aware of the needs of his higher mind for knowledge, understanding of the higher values and aims of life and right living, which are the motives of our intellectual, ethical and aesthetic being. And finally comes the primal need of our soul or spiritual being for realizing the ultimate meaning and aim of life, which is the source of spiritual history.

This is in brief the psychological history of man. Thus the history of man is the outer expression of inner urges, needs, motives and aspirations of his four fold being: Body, Life, Mind and Soul. The first two parts or the levels of our being, our body, heart, life-force and will and their motives, are the inner source of the economic, social and political history. The other two higher parts, the higher mind and soul, are the source of cultural and spiritual history of humanity. These four parts and their motives form an evolutionary hierarchy. The human being begins his evolutionary journey as a physical man governed by the needs of his body and goes on to become progressively the vital, mental and spiritual being. The actual process of development may not happen exactly in the order we have indicated; what we have indicated only is a broad pattern of progress effected through complex cycles of Nature. In the course of this progress all the powers, faculties and qualities of the various parts of our human organism are developed and the human consciousness is awakened to its highest destiny through progressive experiences, education, ideas and ideals.

 Use of the Past

The other important question which we have to consider is the relevance of the past for the present and the future. As we have mentioned earlier, our modern civilization is governed predominantly by the utilitarian and pragmatic mind. For everything in life we ask what is the use? So what is the use of the Past? We will not at present enter into an argument with those who answer in the negative and say history has no use for the present or the future. We will begin with the views of those who have faith in the utility of history and try to counter the opponents of history with statements like, “We can learn from the past” or “History repeats itself”. But these statements are repeated so many times by the wise and the not-so-wise, with or without understanding that they have become platitudes. But if we can get behind the words to the why and how of these flat truisms, we may probably touch upon some of the true use of history.

If history, as we have suggested, is the story of human development in the past, it will not be unreasonable to suppose that past development of humanity contains lessons for the present progress and future evolution of humanity. But not many historians looked at history in this developmental perspective. For example, a deep understanding of the causal factors behind the birth, growth and decline of civilization may reveal some enduring truths on human development which may be relevant for all times. In fact some of the questions which arise during the study of important historical phenomena have deep developmental implications. What is the secret of the immense cultural creativity of a small city-state like Greece which provided most of the founding ideas and ideals of western civilization? Why great cultures like the philosophic and aesthetic Greece or spiritual India which enriched humanity with great and noble ideas and values succumbed to or seriously disrupted by barbarian invasion? What are the success-factors behind the “Golden-age” of civilizations? Why the golden-ages always pass and could not be sustained? What are the sources of vitality and endurance of a civilization? These are all not solely historical questions of the past but developmental issues which are relevant for the present.

And history does repeat itself. The problems, issues and events of the past tend to repeats themselves. There is an element of repetition in history though it may not be a mechanical repetition with a clock-like precision or sameness. We have to understand this important aspect of the nature of history.

There are two causal factor behind this repetitions of history. The first factor is that Nature works through repetitive rhythmic cycles. We can observe this cycles not only in physical Nature but also in our human and psychological nature. And in our spiritual conception, our human nature and its outer expression in life through history is part of universal Nature. The second factor is that there are some constants in human Nature and world-nature or universal Nature which remains the same behind all changes in time. And these constants are repeated or rediscovered again and again in the course of history.

What are these constants? First, the fundamental laws, principles and structure of human nature and human life, World-nature and universal life are a constant through the flow of time; second, the basic urges, needs, motives, faculties and powers of human nature are the same in essence through all the changes of history. Some part of human nature and its motives or faculties may dominate a certain epoch in history. But the whole of human nature, and all its motives and powers, is present and expresses itself at all times. This is the reason why certain situations, events, problems and ideas recur in history, though not in the same form.

Whenever and wherever a part of human nature and its motives expresses itself forcefully in the outer life it gives birth to more or less similar structures, events or problems or makes similar discoveries. For example whenever and wherever the thinking or intuitive mind in man is able to plumb into the depth of the inner world or outer life and touch the fundamental laws, and  principles of things it gives birth to similar ideas or conclusion or discoveries. The ethical and spiritual teachings of saints, sages, and philosophers widely separated in space and time, are more or less the same in all ages of history. The law of unity discovered by ancient eastern sages in the spiritual realm by plumbing into the depth of their souls are rediscovered by modern scientific mind in the subatomic depth of matter. The vital nature in man which seeks for power and expansion, when it expressed itself in the ancient world it created huge political empires and the same part expressing itself in the modern world creates global business empires. And the problems of organisation faced by empire-builders of ancient India and that of modern multinationals, like for example the problem of centralisaiton and decentralization, are more or less the same in essence, however different it may be in its outer form.

This brings us to another important evolutionary factor behind the repetitions of history. In the individual or the collectivity, Nature repeats unresolved problems of the past again and again until the true and permanent solution is discovered. Nature gives repeated opportunities for the individual and the collectivity for learning and progress.

What is the pragmatic significance of the repetitions of history for human development? Does it have any significance at all? This brings us to the critics of the past who say that history has no relevance for the present or future. They argue that history has not much to teach because in this world “change is the only constant”. Life is like a flowing river. No two situations in space and time are the same. So past situations or solutions cannot be a guide to the present or future. What worked in the past will not work in the present or future. There is much truth in this argument. For as we have mentioned earlier, the repetition of Nature in history are not mechanical repetitions. They are progressive cycles. For change and progress are also one of the constants of Nature though not the only constant. So it is undoubtedly true that no two situations or problems in the history are the same though they may be similar. The form, environment and the circumstances in which they recur are always different, though a discerning eye may detect some essential similarly behind the outer changes. So any attempt to revive the past forms and ideals as they are in the past is an uncreative exercise. For Nature never repeats mechanically her old forms and ideals but always progresses towards better forms and greater ideals. So history should not be used as a support for reviving the past but as a means for a better understanding of the present and a foresight into the future.

But all these facts of the present or future do not invalidate our proposition that we can learn from the past. A deep understanding of a past event, situation or problem can give a better and a more holistic insight into a similar event, problem or situation of the present by indicating clearly and precisely what is new in the present situation. If we are able to penetrate sufficiently deep into a past situation and get into its root cause, we may stumble upon some enduring and timeless principles which are valid for all times. And if a past attempt, achievement or solution itself is based on such enduring principles, then it is valid for all times. For example many modern management thinkers are discovering timeless managerial wisdom from the experiences and insights of past leaders in thought and action like Machiavelli, Churchill, Napoleon and even Shakespeare! As we have indicated elsewhere some of the organizational problems faced by empire-builders of ancient India and that of modern multi-nationals are more or less the same in essence. And some of the solutions suggested by modern management thinkers are very similar to the one conceived by ancient Indian sages!

Interestingly, we can find the most pragmatic use of the past in the modern corporate world. It is called as “sharing best practices”. For example, a foreman or an engineer in a factory of a multinational in Bombay, India, faces a problem and solves it successfully. He puts the problem and the solution into the knowledge-management system of the company which can be accessed world-wide through the company intranet. After a few days, months or years another foreman or engineer of the same company in a factory in Sydney, Australia has a similar problem. The engineer in Sydney asks the knowledge-management system, has this problem occurred in past anywhere in the company and how it is solved? The computer coughs up the solution arrived at by the Indian engineer at Bombay. The Australian engineer applies it to the problem he is facing, and surprisingly, it works! In a similar way, is it possible to “share best practices” on human development from the distant past of history? This may not be as easy as learning from the recent past. It requires a deep insight for compensating the inadequacy of information and the wide gap and change in time, space, circumstance and environment. But still a discerning eye which can penetrate into the essence and the root cause of things can find many useful lessons from the achievements of the past.

The Future Perspective

The other important “use” of history is its potential for giving a perspective into the future. A comprehensive “feel” or understanding of the manifest actualities of the past and present can give an insight into the unmanifest possibilities of the future.

 When we examine the thought and lives of great visionaries of mankind who have shaped evolution of human society we will find most of them had a deep insight into History. They have built their vision on the solid foundations of the past. It is precisely because of their deeper insight into the past they had a better understanding of the significance and drift of the present actualities and are able to discern the future possibilities with a greater clarity of judgment, or in other words, clearer vision. This capacity for a proper “historical perspective” which helps one to view the past, present and future in a meaningfully related whole is one of the important qualities which the right study of history can develop in the student. This is now recognised as one of the main purpose of studying history. As John C.B. Webater says in his “Introduction to History”:

 “Perspective, according to webster’s dictionary is the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance. The things which history provides perspective on are present things – structures, events, pressures which participants in history have to deal with every day. Current events are viewed against the background of the events which preceded and led to them, in order to discover how we got to where we are at present. By seeing the present against the background or in the context of the past, we will be able to distinguish between the passing fad or mere ripples on the surface of our present day life on the one hand, and the deeper, more profound and hence more significant currents which are affecting the world in which we live. This kind of perspective is particularly important for those who wish to make the future different from the present or past.”[1]

 But what is not fully recognised is that this historical perspective is important not only for the student of history, but in every field of knowledge. For, as we have indicated earlier there is a rhythmic pattern in every movement of Nature, whether it is the progress of events in life or in the march of Ideas in human Mind. So, a careful study of the evolution of a system of knowledge in the right historical perspective can give a dynamic holistic overview of the trend and drift and pattern of ideas in the field and also a glimpse of the possible direction in which it can or has to proceed. So this perspective vision with an orientation towards the future is the factor which must be emphasised in all historical study and research, to make the subject truly interesting and fruitfully creative for human evolution and progress. As Mother points out:

 “All studies, or in any case the greater part of studies consists in learning about the past, in the hope that it will give a better understanding of the present. But if you want to avoid the danger that the students may cling to the past and refuse to look into the future, you must take great care to explain to them that the purpose of everything that happened in the past was to prepare what is taking place now, and that everything that is taking place now is nothing but a preparation for the road towards the future, which is truly the most important thing for which we must prepare”.[2]

But the intuitions and speculations of the human mind can only be uncertain and tentative because human mind is not the power which decides the future destiny of humanity. The human mind, if it is intuitive, can at the best have only a glimpse of the future possibilities. But mind cannot have a clear and comprehensive vision of the future of humanity with an unclouded perception of present actualities, emerging and future possibilities and the ultimate destiny of human evolution. To have such a total vision we have to raise beyond mind to the spiritual source of our being where only the destiny of man and the world is determined by a transcendent and universal Power, Wisdom and Love.

 Here comes the importance of insights and perceptions of spiritual thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, Telhard-de-Chardin and St. Augustine. They have perceived the deeper meaning of history with faculties greater than reason. Among these spiritual thinkers, Sri Aurobindo had the most comprehensive vision of human and terrestrial evolution and its ultimate destiny.

 History as Philosophy  

 This brings us to what we call as the “philosophical” use of history. History is normally considered as a mundane and secular subject which has nothing to do with the ultimate questions of life. Those who are interested in such ultimate truths of life turn to religion or philosophy. For these are the subjects or fields of knowledge which are supposed to deal with the ultimate meaning of life

 But what is not recognized is that History when it is studied in the light of a comprehensive spiritual vision like that of Sri Aurobindo, can provide a much more concrete and satisfying sense and field of quest into the Ultimate than religion or philosophy. Not all the questions of philosophy and religion can be included in the study of history. But some important philosophical questions like for example how we arrived in this planet? Or why we are here in this planet? Where we are going? What is the significance of all this “sound and fury” of human life, can be explored more concretely through history than through religion or philosophy.

For in our modern age, most of the organized religions of the world have strayed away from their spiritual source and had become rigid dogmas and lifeless rituals. They have nothing mush to offer to a sincere and intelligent thinker questing for the ultimate meaning of life. When we come to philosophy, most of philosophical thinking are made of intellectual abstraction remote from the actual facts of life. Here comes the importance of history as a field for the higher quest. History can provide a concrete framework for exploring some of the ultimate questions of life in the context of the “sound and fury” of human life. But to do this, history has to be studied in the light of a spiritual vision.

 But unfortunately modern scientific mind still obstinately and dogmatically denies the spiritual dimension. Or, if it admits the spiritual it makes a rigid separation between the secular and spiritual and says keep your spiritual belief confined to your private and personal life and do not bring it into the secular and public life. But such an approach is not conducive to a holistic understanding of life.

 For as the ancient sages saw clearly, and the modern scientific mind is beginning to see, life is a connected Whole. Nature and life, in man or in the universe, from the highest spiritual to the lowest material dimension are an interconnected and indivisible unity. We cannot understand fully any part or activity of life, without a deep insight into the indivisible wholeness of life. This is because the nature of a part is determined by its relations with other parts and the whole. And the spiritual dimension is the very source of our being and life and the foundation of unity and wholeness of life. So we cannot hope to understand the deeper truths of a life-science like history without understanding the spiritual dimensions of man and life.

 This brings us to another unique advantage of history as a philosophical quest. Among modern fields of knowledge history covers a broader spectrum of human life than other subject and therefore can provide a more holistic understanding of human life than others. For in modern systems of knowledge the emphasis is on narrow specialization, with each field of knowledge poring over a small slice of nature or human life like for example physics, chemistry, biology, or economics, sociology, politics or commerce. History to a certain extent escapes from this narrow specialization because it looks and studies the human life of the past as a whole and in all its various activities like its economics, politics, society and culture. So history can provide a better understanding of human life. But this is more of a potentiality lying untapped in history. To tap this potentiality of history we have to bring in certain factors or dimensions which are missing at present in the study of history. These factors we have already discussed. They are the psychological and spiritual dimension, spiritual vision of life, human development perspective and futurism.

 Two Schools of History

 By now the main features of our approach to history might have become more or less clear, though we have not yet stated it explicitly. But before summing up our approach we have to consider how history has been viewed until now.

 For what we get from history depends on how we look at it. When we examine the history of hisroical thinking, we can see two broad view-points or in other words two major schools of thought. First is the religious or theological views most of which belongs to the ancient world; second is the secular-scientific schools most of which belongs to the modern world. Both of them have their strength and weaknesses. We may now examine the views and approaches of these two schools of history, their advantages and drawbacks and a third, alternative approach which tries to reconcile their views in a higher synthesis.

 The Religious View of History

There is no single religious view of history because there are many religions and a multitude of religious philosophies, each with a distinct view of the world and life.

There are philosophies which consider the human world, life and history as some form of an illusion. For these philosophies history has no great significance because it is part of the illusion from which we have to escape into some Nirvana or an Absolute beyond the illusion. There are other religious philosophies which conceive the world and human life not as an illusion but as the creative expression of a divine Being or Power. But not all theistic philosophies give equal importance to history. Some of them consider the world and the creative act of God as the “play” of a divine child or lover with no great meaning or purpose or significance except the joy of playing. This brings to a third category of religious thought which view the creative act of God as a purposive movement or play and perceive a divine plan behind the flow of history. It is this perception of history which we may call the religious view of history. For the other two views, for all practical purposes have no historical perspective and therefore do not have much relevance for our present discussion.

In the ancient world, the most articulate and insightful exponent of the religious view of history was the Christian mystic St. Augustine. “The education of the human race” wrote this great Christian thinker” represented by the people of God has advanced like that of an individual through certain epocs, or as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things and from the visible to the invisible”.[3] Thus according to St. Augustine human history is a progressive education of the human race leading to the inner awakening of humanity, advancing from the knowledge of the earthly and the visible facts to the heavenly and invisible realities. This perception of St. Augustine sums up succinctly the essence of the religious view of history.

The main strength of the religious view of history is that it reveals a crucial aspect of the spiritual dimension of human life and history and it is based on a constantly recurring spiritual intuition in the religious history of humanity. In fact all the three religious views we have discussed earlier are based on some spiritual intuition. But the intuition behind the religious view of history has caught an important truth of the dynamic, creative and guiding aspect of the spiritual source of the world which the other two intuitions missed. This spiritual intuition is as valid as a scientific fact; it is a spiritual fact which is tested and verified in the inner experiences of a community of mystics spread over space and time, in the same way a scientific fact of matter is tested and verified by a community of scientists. As Sri Aurobindo points out,

 “The ground on which skeptical unbelief assails Religion namely, that there is no conscient Power or Being in the universe greater and higher than ourselves or in any way influencing or controlling our existence, is one which Yoga cannot accepts as that would contradict all spiritual experience and make Yoga itself impossible. Yoga is not a matter of theory or dogma like philosophy or popular religion, but a matter of experience. Its experience is that of a concient universal and supracosmic. Being with whom it brings us into union, and this conscious experience of union with the Invisible, always renewable and verifiable is as valid as our conscious experience of a physical world  and of visible bodies with whose indivisible minds we daily communicate.”[4]

 Thus the religious view of history is based on the intuition that the human life and history is guided and governed by a divine wisdom which is infinitely greater that the human “wisdom”, if that word can be used for the flicker of puny light possessed by the tiny little human ego and its mind! “Wisdom is the Eye of the world” said the ancient sage of the Upanishads. Sri Aurobindo, a modern sage, says in an almost similar language” A Wisdom knows and guides the mysteried  world. A Truth-gaz shapes its beings and events”.[5] So the secular and scientific denial of this spiritual dimension of history, and the intuitions and experiences of this dimension by mystics, deprives of this school of thought an important source of insight, and for humanity as a whole, a source of hope, faith, inspiration, help and guidance from a higher power beyond the human mind. Interestingly, a well-known “secular” leader and thinker who believed in this religious vision of history is Benjamin Franklin. Here is a great scientist, inventor, thinker, writer, statesman, and one of the founding fathers of a great modern nation, who did not hesitate to proclaim his religious belief in a very secular congregation. In one of his address to the constitutional convention of America, Benjamin Franklin said:

 “In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engaged in the struggle, must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance?—

 I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that GOD governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord built the house, they labor in vain that built it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye-word down to future ages. And, what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war and conquest?—“[6]

The above words of one of the founding fathers of a great modern nation brings out forcefully the pragmatic significance of the religious view of history. The most significant part of Benjamin Franklin’s address is “God governs in the affairs of men”. This means God is not an indifferent witness of an illusory universe; no is He like an absentee landlord, after creating the universe left it to be managed solely by human beings or by abandoned it to the Devil. God works through history. The divine will and wisdom works out its purpose through our human life and history and our human wills and it is always available for help and guidance if we can open our mind and heart to it through faith and prayer.

But the main draw back of this religious schools of history is that they failed to translate their intuition into a comprehensive philosophy and science of history. The intuition is presented as a dogma but no attempt was made to link the intuition with the facts of history through progressive and interpretive thought. For a spiritual intuition to have creative impact on the collective thought and life, if has to be converted into a growing body of knowledge, constantly renewing and interacting with the progressive facts and experiences of life, with Reason acting as a link between intuition and life. Without this creative and progressive cogitation in thought and interaction with life, the intuition looses its creative vigour and soon gets petrified into a dogma.

The spiritual force behind history acts through human instruments. The laws and process by which this higher Force works out its purpose through the inner being and outer life in man also have be investigated by spiritual intuition and reason. This forges the link between the inner spiritual and psychological and the outer economic social, political and cultural factors of history, creating a comprehensive science of history. But the religious view of history seems to have no such intuition or made no attempt to investigate the linking process between the inner and outer dimensions of history.

The Secular and Scientific View of History  

Let us now move from the religious to the scientific and secular schools of history. The fundamental assumptions and beliefs of this school of history are less diverse and much more homogenous than the religious schools. The scientific school of history does not believe or accept any spiritual basis or divine plan or aim for history. The aim or purpose of studying history is to investigate with an objective, scientific and impartial outlook the physical, economic, social, political and cultural factors or forces which shaped the march of human civilization. Apart from this general or overarching aim, there may be other specific objectives like for example “appreciation of the distinctive achievements and limitation of the principal human societies and cultures, past and present, and an awareness of their relevance for contemporary problems” or to enquire into “the causes of events and patterns of human organization and ideas – a search for the forces that impelled humanity towards it great undertaking and the reason for its success and failures.”[7] These objectives are part of the developmental perspective which we have already discussed and are in harmony with some of the objectives of our approach to history.

 But for a long time modern studies and research on history tended towards an overemphasis on the political dimensions of history. History writing was centred around kings and dynasties and the rise and fall of empires. Even now much of text-book history is dominated by political events. But at present there is a growing recognition among modern historians for a more holistic approach to history. As the authors of “World-civilisation”, a standard work on world-history, point out,

 “—until deep into twentieth century most historians considered history to be little more than “past politics – and a dry chronicle of past politics as that. The content of history was restricted primarily to battles and treatises, the personality and politics of statesman, the laws and decrees of rulers. But important such data are, they are by no means constitute the whole substance of history. Especially within the last few decades historians have come to recognize that history compresses a record of past human activities in every sphere – not just political development but also social, economic and intellectual ones. — ideas and attitudes too are part of the historians concern.”[8]

Here the most interesting part of this new and emerging perception on history is the recognition of the importance of psychological factors like Ideas in the shaping of history. In their introduction to the look on world-history from which we have quoted earlier, the authors say “They (the authors) believe it is of greater values to understand the significance of Buddha, Confucius, Newton, Darwin and Einstein than it is to name the king of France.”[9]

The advantage of the secular-scientific approach to history is all the plus points of the scientific method like its objective and impartial outlook on the facts of and factors behind history; non-dogmatic approach to knowledge; urge for progress in knowledge through constant self-correction and extension of the frontiers of knowledge. At present, there is a growing recognition among scientific minds in all subjects, of the importance of “holistic” understanding of life. As a result there is an increasing willingness and openness in the scientific mind to receive knowledge from sources other than its own field and a recognition of the need for an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge. As the American historian McNiel Burns and his co-authors write in their book on world-history:

 “As historians have extended the compass of their work, they have also equipped themselves with new methods and tools. No longer do historians merely pore over the same old chronicles and documents to ask whether Charles the Fat was at Ingelhiem or Lustanu on July 1, 1887. To introduce the evidence of statistics, they learn the methods of the computer scientist. To interpret the effect of a rise in the cost of living, they study economics — To understand the motives of the men and women they draw on the insights of social psychologists and cultural anthropologist. To illuminate the lives of the poor and of those who have left few written records they look for other cultural remains – folk songs, for example and the tradition embodied in oral history.”[10]

 But the main problem with most of the modern historian is that the scientific and interdisciplinary approach is not pursued to its logical conclusion to include all the dimensions of history. The predominant emphasis of modern history is still very much on the outer economic, social, political and cultural history. The inner spiritual and psychological dimensions are either ignored or not given the attention they deserve. There is at present a recognition of the psychological dimension in history. The modern historian is beginning to admit psychological factors like ideas, attitudes and motives. But the human psyche is not merely the ideas of the thinking mind or the conscious or subconscious motives studied by modern psychology. There are the instinct and sensation of the body, feelings and emotions of the heart, the will and vital force of the dynamic parts of the psyche, the intuitions and perceptions of the ethical and aesthetic being, and the self-interest of the ego. All these are also part of the human psyche and their needs, motives, power and qualities have profoundly influenced the course of human history. And beyond the conscious and subconscious parts of the human psyche there is the superconscious and spiritual dimensions explored by the great sages, yogis and mystics of the world.

This brings us to the religious history of humanity. Religion is a major influence on human life in the pre-modern world. The influence of Religion was temporarily eclipsed or rather suppressed for some time in our modern age under the scientific, rationalistic and materialistic thought. But now it is again slowly and steadily regaining its hold on the modern mind. So we can’t understand history without understanding the moral, psychological and spiritual sources of religion and its impact on the outer life. The modern historian studies only the external social or political dimensions of religion or the superficial psychological motives like fear. But Religion, whatever may be its outer forms and the distortion to which it has succumbed, is in its essence and source a spiritual phenomenon. To understand religion and its impact on human life and history, the historian has to study the spiritual experiences and intuitions of the founders and mystics of religion and the deep-seated psychological urge in man for inner fulfillment and return to the inner sources of his being. These are the deeper spiritual and psychological sources of religion. If the historian studies these spiritual sources of religion with a truly scientific attitude he will find that there is an underlying unity among the experiences, intuitions and teachings of the spiritual teachers of the world. He will find that just like the physical world is governed by physical forces and laws, three are psychological, cosmic and spiritual forces and laws governing the inner nature and life of man and the world, and the outer life of man is shaped and governed by these invisible forces and laws of his inner being.

In an intellectual approach to a field of knowledge like history which covers a wide spectrum of human life, there is only one way to come close to a holistic understanding of the subject. It is to supplement individual insights on the subject with the insights of collective wisdom of hymanity on every activity of human life which is related to or studied in history, arrive at some synthesis of these insights, and look at the flow of history in the light of this synthesis. And the spiritual intuitions of mystics, sages and saints of the world are probably the highest and noblest part of the collective wisdom of humanity, revealing the deepest and the inner most sources of our being and life. So The secular and scientific school of history, by denying the spiritual dimension, is shutting itself to the insights of some of the wisest minds of the world, and to a source of illumination deeper and greater than reason.

 Our Approach  

We are now in a position to sum up our approach to the subject. In our research project on history we will be exploring an alternative approach which will try to synthesies the religious-theological and the scientific-secular approach in the light of ancient Indian thought and Sri Aurobindo’s vision of human life and history.

Our approach accepts the essential spiritual intuition behind the religious view of history. But we will try to link this spiritual intuition with the facts of history and the shaping factors and forces behind history. We will investigate the laws, process and stages by which universal Nature, who is the executive Power of the Spirit, works out the Will and Purpose of the Spirit in and through history. So we accept in principle the emphasis of the secular-scientific approach of history on the fact and factors of history. But we will include the spiritual and psychological factors which are ignored in the secular-scientific view of history.

Our approach to the study of world-history will look at the march of human civilization from four perspectives: spiritual, psychological, developmental and futuristic.

 First is the spiritual perspective. In our approach we consider our human individuality and the collectivity, in their essence, as a spiritual being, and a spark of the universal and transcendent Divine, and our life and mind as the instruments of our spiritual self. In this spiritual perspective we may look upon human history as the progressive working-out of the universal divine Will and its Propose in human life through various stages and cycles of human evolution. But this working out of the divine will and purpose is not something arbitrary, disregarding altogether the human will; it is done through the inner being and outer life of man; using the human being and his will as the instrument; through the process of cosmic laws; and under the overarching guidance of the divine will and wisdom. So in our view human being is not just a puppet of the divine will. Our human will and its choice and inclination is an important factor and instrument in the working out of the divine will. Our human will cannot alter the divine will but its choice and inclination has consequences for human life determined by cosmic laws. Our human thought and will by the nature of its choice and inclination can felicitate, accelerate or retard our evolution and progress to our goal depending on how much it is in harmony with or opposed to the cosmic law and the divine will.

The second is the psychological perspective. The outer history of humanity is the expression of our inner history. The outer events of history are the expression of the inner condition of the people. Every major achievements or advances in human history is the expression of some inner powers, qualities, potentialities, faculties and values of human consciousness and helped to bring out, manifest and develop these inner potentialities in man. Similarly the negative, or diabolic events of history may be the expression of some inherent defects, limitations or dark spots in human consciousness. So the outer events, achievements and failures of humanity cannot be understood fully without knowing their inner causes.

We tend to admire a hero like Gandhi or a villain like Hitler as if they are individually responsible wholly for what they have done. But they are only individual representatives of what we as a human species collectively hold within us and capable of. The individual leader is only a channel through which the inner potentialities of a collectivity are released into the outer life. Thus in Indian history, Gandhi become the focal point around which the urge for freedom and the moral energies of a great nation, awakened by earlier leaders, galvanized and released into action. Similarly with Hitler in an opposite way.

But some of the apparently negative events or elements in history, when we look at them from a deeper psychological and human development perspective, may reveal some positive elements. For example frequent wars which dot the map of human history even up to this day indicate some inherent limitations in human consciousness. But wars have also helped to bring out positive human qualities like courage, endurance and heroism. In this psychological perspective we will look upon history as a progressive awakening of the human being to his highest and total potential through progressive experiences and self-expression of his body, life and mind.

The third is the developmental perspective. We will look into history in the light of an evolutionary vision of the inner and outer development of the human individual and collectivity and try to see what lesson it holds for the present and the future evolution and development of humanity. But while the primary emphasis of the traditional historian is on the outer economic, social and political development of humanity, our predominant emphasis will be on the inner psychological and spiritual development of mankind through history.

And the fourth is the future perspective. The word “History” is so much associated with the past that the word has become almost synonymous with all that is gone and dead. Very rarely history is studied in relation with the living present and the emerging future. In our research project we will make a conscious attempt to study history in the light of a luminous vision of the Future provided by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, in other words we will try to look at the Past with the Eye of the Future.

These are the main feature of our approach to history. Such an approach cannot be obviously of a specialist kind. It has to draw upon insights from many other disciplines like spirituality, philosophy, psychology and social sciences. The aim of study and research is not a specielist’s understanding of history but an attempt towards a holistic understanding of human life through history. Or in other words, History providing the context and occasion, for a broader understanding of human life as a whole.

[1] John, C.B.Webster, “Introduction to History”, p.21

[2] MCW, vol. 12, 169

[3] Robert Nisbet, “History of the Idea of Progress”, p. 60

[4] SABCL., vol. 21, 531

[5] SABCL., vol. 28, 271

[6] Benjamin Franklin, Writings, The Library of America, 1138-39

[7] Edward Mc Nau Burns, “World Civilisation“, p. 6

[8] ibid. p. 5-6

[9] ibid. p. 6

[10] ibid.

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3 thoughts on “Study of World History– Towards a New Approach—M.S. Srinivasan

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