A society does not grow if it is left to its own resources. It is carried forwards only by the individuals who have their roots in the society, who have the vision and energy, and can graft their vision on the existing society. So the individual and the society are organically interrelated. We cannot think about a society without thinking about individuals who constitute the society. Theoretically, the best condition which leads to the optimal development of the individual is also the best condition for the optimal development of society. Perhaps this must have been the case in the Vedic times when each one felt the collective responsibility towards the society, and the society took the responsibility to look after the well-being of the individual. The individual is related to the society in the way humans are related to humanity, but, as it stands now, there is a dialectic relationship between the individual and the society. The motive force that drives the individuals to live their personal lives is different from that which sustains society in which they live or are embedded. While individuals are usually ambitious, individualistic and creative, society represents a set of rules and regulations according to which it expects the individual to act and behave. In a sense, society is considered to act as a governing entity; it demands that individuals follow certain codes of conduct as members of the society. It would appear that individuality and humanity represent two opposing human tendencies although they are intricately interwoven. They have a dynamic and evolutive relationship. One cannot be saved unless the other too is saved. Universal salvation is the aim of the historical process, but this process cannot come to an end until every individual is saved, but no individual is really saved until society is perfected.
In the early stages of their development, humans were entirely dependent on the mercy of Nature. Nature to them was something fearful and mysterious. Survival was then the basic object of their existence. They were brought together by the common need to survive or by the herd principle which meant little individuality. But as humans developed into families, clans and groups, life became easier and they began to think independently out of the survival principle. Their relationship with Nature changed dramatically once they became aware of their mental faculty which they could now relate directly to their life. As a result, they knew that they can have interactive relationship with Nature and take an active part not only in their own evolution but also that of their society. As humans became aware of their increased mental capacity, individual freedom, individual development, creativity and increase in consciousness became the hull mark of individuality. Individuals became better able to cope with outer circumstances or environmental conditions. Total dependence on society became less acute. This totally changed the previous conception about the relationship between the society and the individuals. The role of individuals became more and more important to the extent that some of them became the prime mover of human history, as epoch making individuals who were able to lead the mass to their higher levels of existence.
It was a qualitative change in man’s thinking namely that our thinking can be independent of outer conditions or irrespective of the conditions society puts on us. The human evolution thenceforward depended on their understanding of Nature, on the many-sided potential of individuals as well as on the relationship between the individuals and the laws that govern the functioning of that society. This created room for the growth of individuality, and the role of individuals has been the most important factor in the qualitative evolution of man and the society he lives in. The quality and the direction of human progress, however, depends on whether it is the society or the individual that governs this direction. Society is composed of individuals, but a society is not just a simple amalgam of individuals. Culture, traditions and the prevailing philosophical and religious values combined together constitute what we call society, and it is often the society that governs the direction of the usual running of human progress. This is true so long as we are governed by old Sanskars, but it is also true that old Sanskars, if not changed or modified to fit in with newer conditions, become hurdles in the path of the spiritual quest. The question still remains: what is to be chosen? and the answer is to be sought in: “the self-liberating person or the demanding and seemingly engrossing collectivity” - Sri Aurobindo. Is it the self-liberating persons or the epoch making individuals who bring about the qualitative change in social values and in the direction of human progress?
Usually, it is the individual spirit that is the creator of world conditions. The role of epoch making personalities such as Krishna, Buddha and Christ and others is well known. They bring about a paradigm shift, - a qualitative change primarily in the existing value systems. Society then moves forward according to the new values which depend on whether it is the society that governs the individual or the other way round. I personally believe that we have crossed the nadir of Kaliyuga and that the role of individuals is becoming more important as shown by a shift in our action and behavior characterized by two features: firstly a shift in our perception and thinking patterns, and secondly a shift in the value system. These individuals are the ones who see through time and space. So society or civilization does move ahead out of its motion but due to the efforts of a minority of wise people, but this does not yet solve the problem existing between the individual demands and the requirements for personal freedom. But the true human nature is holistic and the intrinsic and human nature is all-encompassing goodness. Personal demands which are egoistic and aggressive are taken over by altruistic universal requirements which are no more demands.
The knowing faculty as applicable to the mass is quite different from the one that is applicable to individuals. Accordingly, the psychological motive that drives the individuals is also qualitatively different from that which drives the society. The society has no inner realms of existence. It exists only in our ideas and conceptions. If social values seem to affect us, it is because we invest those values in the society, but society, by itself, does not owe those values. While the knowing faculty of the mass accommodates only the general features of an idea behind the progressive evolution of man, and is limited by customs and traditions, it is the few individuals who provide the necessary scientific, philosophic and religious background for the forward movement or progressive evolution of man and society. The saints or seers are the examples of these individuals.
The role of individuals in transforming the society and the response of the society to the wisdom of the individuals seem to have been affected significantly by the encompassing cultural and religious background. Values are themselves dynamic; depend on the stage of development of a society i.e. by the pattern of social organization, by its structure and the interrelationship between its various structural components. The major social factors include the structure of the society i.e. whether the society is multi-racial, multi-ethnical, patriarchic, matriarchic etc. The major cultural factors are ethics and morality, which are again not static. Religion and philosophy constitute the major factor affecting the value system.
In the East, the quest for knowledge is through introspection, reflection, contemplation, intuition etc. As such, knowledge is gained through a sort of interpolation, inter-dependence, integration and synthesis of these concepts or mediums of knowledge. This represents a transitional stage. Truth is there; we just have to travel to it. In the West, however, the way of thinking is basically extravert and knowledge is gained more through extrapolation i.e. by extending and not necessarily expanding the prevalent concepts and perceptions beyond the present levels of understanding. But since this extrapolation is more quantitative instead of being qualitative, one is not sure of the next station in one’s journey. Besides, in the East we look at the object of knowledge globally first i.e. at the whole first and then at its constituent parts. In the West, the constituent elements are first separated, laid bare and then analyzed individually, perhaps in greater detail. But then when an attempt is made to assemble them again some of the elements that have come into existence precisely on account of the interrelationships between the various components are lost and so we are never able to arrive at the original whole. As a result of industrial revolution in the West, a purely rationalistic approach towards science and scientific progress has resulted in some loss of the living sense of Truth which became more concerned with physical and outward facts of life and their practical utility. The result is that individualism is overemphasized at the cost of society. Philosophy has thus been divorced from spiritual progress and value systems. Religion, philosophy and psychology attracted much less attention. Instead much effort was spent on the study of the laws of material nature of man’s bodily, social, economic and political existence in order to build a superior civilization or perhaps a more efficient social structure.
The other side of the coin is that since individuals have to find the practical utility of their existence in a competitive world, the pioneering zeal they possessed earlier for creation and adventure has now been blunted as individuals can no longer afford to exist in their individual domain in a competitive world. Since they have to lead a collective life, the creative individuals have been underestimated at the cost of collective needs of the society. This dualism between individual creativity and the compulsion to be a part of the collective society may create tension between these two aspects of life, but they can also be made complementary to each other, and it is the second aspect that is more important, and can provide energy for human development.
In both the cases, individuals who cannot rise above the society are unable to show the right path. The individualistic character of our society has thus led to certain disharmony between the society and the individuals. Of course, there will always be some seers/philosophers who can do this, but the mass needs to be guided and awakened. Philosophy has always guided the paradigm shift in the East whereas a shift of paradigm first in science caused a corresponding shift in social arena in the West. The theory of relativity is an example which showed how a paradigm shift first in science led to a paradigm shift in our understanding of reality, but this shift did not occur without some mental pain. It seems that the West has not been able to free itself from the psychological connection with material universe because of its inbuilt habit of measuring everything in quantitative terms. Therefore, it is more the West where we encounter the crisis of perception and where the vision of reality is blurred. But again it is the West, which is more open to new ideas and ready to accept changes. The East and the West are thus complementing each other. For most of us the reality is what the seers or philosophers tell us to believe, but which we may not yet have realized simply because of the barrier imposed by the logical mind. The Western intellect in combination with the Eastern intuition or the Western mind in combination with the Eastern spirit is the hope for our brighter future.
We can now conclude this chapter by highlighting the major aspects pertaining to society and individuals that are responsible for the harmonious unity of society and individuals as well as those that are responsible for creating tension between society and individuals. The human history as the progression of the balance between the requirements of society and that of individuals seems to move ahead maintaining the dynamic balance between two seemingly opposite elements. One pertains to the evolution of society, the other to the evolution and transformation of individuals as time moves on. These two tendencies seem to be sometimes in contradiction and sometimes in harmony with each other. It depends on whether we stress on the spirit or on matter. These two tendencies diametrically oppose one another. Generally speaking, society moves ahead according to the dialectical relationship between the individual and the society and includes periods of excesses created by society at one time and by individual at another time. But according to the Eastern thinking these periods are of temporary nature, and once they are eliminated, the necessities of society are put in proper relationship with those of individuals, individualism and collectivism, which previously were of opposing nature, no longer remain inimical. The one exists for the other, but not for negating or contradicting the other but for enhancing the other. Once this is made clear we are in a position to reveal their relative roles in human development. And it is through the integral development of human beings as individuals and in community that human race can be saved. However, great changes, great epoch-making upheavals occur only when the great individuals take the command and are creative at their best. These are the times of stupendous transformation made possible by the immergence of Seer-Will or an Avatar. Since we are now realizing the interdependence between the individual and the society more acutely, and that in a more harmonized way, it may not be too far when we could say that the best condition which leads to the optimal growth/development of individual is also the best condition for the optimal growth/development of society.
If we compare a boat as society and boatman as an individual we can perhaps say: It is the duty of the individual to guide the society, but if we leave society to reform itself, it will capsize like a boat without a boatman.