Conventional Activism and Integral Psychology

Naveen Kumar V.


I have always been interested in issues relating to social change and transformation. Over the last ten years, many of my personal and career choices have been influenced by this motive of working towards collective good. Working in an automobile company as an Environmental Engineer for a couple of years, gave me the opportunity to see that Corporations today are driven by greed, growth and competition. Environmental and social responsibilities are only peripheral concerns and can be accommodated only as far as they don't reduce the profit margins. So I stepped out seven years ago, in search of what it means to live more meaningfully and responsibly, and reduce one's negative footprint in this extraordinarily violent society.

My search and travels took me to many different places and groups, with varying ideologies and understandings of social change. For a while I have been impressed and inspired by the Gandhian discourse and world-view, and tried to look at the world through this lens. About a year ago, when I came across Sri Aurobindo's teachings, they were intriguing and there also seemed to be some differences with the Gandhian world view, which I was interested in exploring further. Like said earlier, in the last seven years I got to observe a few schools of activism from relatively close quarters, and a large majority of activists fall within the category of what I call "conventional activism". There are certain defining characteristics of this category, which I will elucidate later. For my project at the IPI, I was curious to enquire further how the practice of this conventional activism would change, if it were to incorporate the teachings and wisdom of Indian Psychology. (Or Integral Psychology.)

As I was at cross-roads myself in my understanding and practice of activism, I felt such an enquiry might also help bring about some much needed clarity regarding the next steps in life.

Theoretical Elucidation:

As said earlier, conventional activism as I perceive it, has certain defining characteristics. They are:

  1. A fragmented understanding of the 'self' and the 'world'. Humans are considered to be merely physical, vital and mental beings. The Soul is rarely recognized, and Spirituality is not seen as having a role in social transformation.
  2. A non-evolutionary perspective of life. Evolution at best is only biological.
  3. The action/work ('activism') has an underlying flavor of 'Us & Them'. There is often anger and righteousness against those perceived to be the bad guys.
  4. It is protest driven. And Rights based.
  5. Westernized notions of "injustice" and "privilege".
  6. I agree the suffering of the poor is not to be romanticized, and that's not the intent either. However, there has been a dominant understanding or 'power' and 'privilege', advanced by modern civilization that I feel needs to be critically looked into. While their situation is quite hard indeed, I feel these dominant discourses of 'power' and 'privilege' further disempower the poor by making them victims. This is where I feel people like Christ and Gandhi are extremely important in their inversion of what power and privilege actually are. No doubt material deprivation causes immense hardship, but I feel the spiritual deprivation (of the oppressor) is worse. The oppressed, if they can be free of their victimhood, are in the best position to hold a mirror up to the oppressor. I do not see a non-violent revolution happening, without the oppressed waking up to their spiritual privilege. Their role is vital in the journey towards Sarvodaya. Beneath all this is the world-view that in the scheme of things, consciousness (or spirit) is hierarchically more important than matter. It doesn't mean that matter is not important, it has its rightful place in the Pancha-kośas, but that if we were to choose, as many of us are forced to in this civilization, then material poverty is far more desirable to spiritual poverty.
    — (In an email conversation, with a friend recently.)
  7. Modern Civilization is inherently bad. (A Gandhian perspective) Gandhiji calls it a 'satanic civilization' that needs to be destroyed.
  8. Suffering is wrong. Pain is bad and needs to be avoided.
  9. Focuses on Institutional and external reform.

Integral Practice:

When the truth's of Integral Psychology start informing the practice of 'Conventional Activism', I feel it starts to change in its nature and moves toward what I call 'Integral Practice' or 'Purna Sadhana'. The below are I feel its defining characteristics:

  1. Wholistic understanding of the 'Self' and the 'world'. Human beings are not just physical, vital and mental beings. They also have a Soul and are part of a larger unity of Life.
  2. An Evolutionary perspective of Life.
  3. "There is an ascending evolution in nature which goes from stone to the plant, from the plant to the animal, from animal to man. Because man is, for the moment, the last rung at the summit of the ascending evolution, he considers himself as the final stage in the ascension and believes there can be nothing on earth superior to him. In that he is mistaken. In his physical nature he is yet almost wholly an animal, a thinking and speaking animal, but still an animal in his material habits and instincts. Undoubtedly, nature cannot be satisfied with such an imperfect result, she endeavours to bring out a being who will be to man what man is to the animal, a being who will remain a man in its external form and yet whose consciousness will rise far above the mind and its slavery to ignorance."
    — The Mother
  4. It does not have an "Us & Them" kind of energy about it, but "we are all in this together" kind of spirit. No righteousness or anger either. There are no bad guys, but only ignorance.
  5. Not protest driven, but by compassion for fellow beings and love for the Divine. Not rights based but on Self-giving.
  6. Eastern notions of "injustice" and "privilege".""
  7. The main issue with the current/dominant understanding of 'Power' and 'Privilege' that modern civilization promotes, is that it considers material deprivation and physical pain as the greatest forms of suffering. Those who are materially 'poor' and going through physical hardships are considered powerless/underdeveloped etc while those enjoying material wealth and physical comfort are considered privileged/developed. Such a conception puts matter (and body) above the soul and spirit. This in my opinion, is not an indigenous (or Indian) perspective but that of the colonizer. Many of the native and 'eastern' cultures have always placed Spirit above matter, and hence spiritual poverty as more unfortunate than material poverty. Like said before, this is not to deny the importance of matter (or the body) but in the hierarchy of things it comes later. So, my concern with the modern discourse around power and privilege is not just that it frames the poor as powerless, but that it further colonizes their minds and hearts. Even our discourses of freedom then become borrowed. Marx and Engels become the teachers of Revolution and not the Buddha and Gandhi. No doubt, the 'west' has a lot to teach us about oppression, but there are also serious deficiencies/distortions in that world view. Unless we also learn from the best of what our own Soil has produced, a radically new society cannot be evolved I feel.
    —(In an email conversation, with a friend recently.)
  8. Modern Civilization is an adolescent stage of human evolution. It is like a Caterpillar on its way towards becoming a Butterfly. It is not entirely bad, and has some good things to offer.
  9. Suffering and pain have a deeper spiritual significance. They are not to be shunned.
  10. Life here is an evolution and the soul grows by experience, working out by it this or that in the nature, and if there is suffering, it is for the purpose of that working out, not as a judgment inflicted by God or Cosmic Law on the errors or stumblings which are inevitable in the Ignorance.
    — Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga
  11. Focuses on Wholistic development/unfoldment of the individual and society.

Personal Findings and Developments:

At the beginning of the project I had some intellectual ideas on what Purna Sadhana would be. Now 6 months later, these ideas are a little less intellectual and have taken a bit more root in me, however tenuous their grip. I would like to live with this question/issue more and see where it takes me.

The below are some more personal observations I'd like to share from the project.

  1. In one of his essays, Dr. Cornelissen mentions two aspects of Yoga as being very important.
    - Shifting the center of observation inwards.
    - Purification (and healthy upkeep) of the instruments of knowledge and action.
  2. I now feel, this is very vital, perhaps the most important part of the Sadhana. Without working for peace and health in oneself, it is futile to aspire for peace and well-being for others. My own struggles in this regards over the last six months have shown how extremely difficult the process is. But like he further says in the essay, is there a nobler goal worthy of out attention?

    "..the pursuit of knowledge by identity can provide answers to our deepest need for love and harmony, and it can give humanity the wisdom and power it so desperately needs to heal the many wounds and distortions that now mar both our individual human natures and our collective existence. So even if the chances of finding this knowledge were exceedingly small, the gamble would still be worth it. But, fortunately, the chance of finding this knowledge is not small at all."
    —Dr. Matthijs Cornelissen, What is Knowledge?
  3. The importance of regular sustained practice as hard as it is, cannot be understated. Progress on the path seems to be slow for most people, but it is important to keep picking up oneself from the stagnation and inertia that keep setting in. My Yoga teacher says 'Yama & Niyama' is both the stepping stone and the litmus test indicating how far the Sadhana has progressed.
  4. Like The Mother says here:
  5. "In each one of us there is a difficulty which is more central than all the others; it is the one which, relative to the part we have to play in the world, is like the shadow of that light, a shadow which gradually dissolves, fades more and more as the light becomes more intense, more brilliant, more powerful and extends to the whole being.
    This difficulty, which is particular to each one, seems to me to be the one which deserves all our attention and effort, for if we know how to observe ourselves, we shall see that it is the source of all the others which may obstruct our way."
    I too think there is a central difficulty in me that keeps me tied down in certain ways. I suspect if it is in the physical plane, a certain laziness or lethargy of the body. As I get older, it certainly seems to be more pronounced. But I am not sure if the causes for this are deeper. I will have to find out what this is. It could also be that I am emotionally very tired says an inner voice as I write this. Perhaps I should wait and observe what emerges.
  6. 'Social Change' that the mind can conceive is very limited. So it's best to withdraw the intellect from this process of envisionment, and deciding how things should or shouldn't be, what is 'right', 'wrong' etc. Instead if we were to concentrate on being truthful each moment, change would naturally 'emerge' as per the design of 'Higher Will'.
  7. The search for truth is true religion, and the man who is seeking truth is the only religious man. Such a man, because of his love, is outside of society, and his action upon society is therefore entirely different from that of the man who is in society and concerned with its reformation. The reformer can never create a new culture. What is necessary is the search of the truly religious man, for this very search brings about its own culture and it is our only hope. You see, the search for truth gives an explosive creativeness to the mind, which is true revolution, because in this search the mind is uncontaminated by the edicts and sanctions of society. Being free of all that, the religious man is able to find out what is true; and it is the discovery of what is true from moment to moment that creates a new culture.
    — J Krishnamurti, Think on These Things


    Personally I am convinced Integral Practice/Purna Sadhana is the way forward for both individual and collective transformation. Conventional Activism though often motivated by good intentions, arises from a shallow perspective of Life. Hence it causes suffering for oneself and others, though it might seem like there are some short term 'victories' in it.

    While Integral Practice is key, it is also important to not approach it like a things-to-do list drawn up the intellect. A lot of 'Integral Practice' in the West seems to be doing this. Separate practices for the physical, vital, mental and spiritual parts of the Being. I have my doubts if that's how it works. In any case, I'd love to learn more and continue experimenting with my own understanding which is still rudimentary, and see where it takes me.

    I would also like to thank the IPI, for their wonderful support, inspiration and guidance in so many ways. If not for their sagely and reassuring presence, this project wouldn't have been as exciting and meaningful.