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Sri Aurobindo

The Harmony of Virtue

Early Cultural Writings — 1890-1910

Karmayogin: A Weekly Review

Saturday 24th July 1909 — No.5

The Greatness of the Individual

In all movements, in every great mass of human action it is the Spirit of the Time, that which Europe calls the Zeitgeist and India kāla, who expresses himself. The very names are deeply significant. Kali, the mother of all and destroyer of all, is the śakti that works in secret in the heart of humanity, manifesting herself in the perpetual surge of men, institutions and movements; Mahakala is the1 Spirit within whose energy goes abroad in her and moulds the progress of the world and the destiny of the nations. His is the impetus which fulfils itself in Time, and once there is movement, impetus from the Spirit within, Time and the Mother take charge of it, prepare, ripen and fulfil. When the Zeitgeist, God in Time, moves in a settled direction, then all the forces of the world are called in to swell the established current towards the purpose decreed. That which consciously helps, swells it, but that which hinders swells it still more, and like a wave on the wind-swept ocean, now rising, now falling, now high on the crest of victory and increase, now down in the trough2 of discouragement and defeat, the impulse from the hidden Source sweeps onwards3 to preordained4 fulfilment. Man may help or man may resist, but the Zeitgeist works, shapes, overbears, insists.

The great and memorable vision of Kurukshetra when Sri Krishna manifesting His world-form declared Himself as destroying Time, is significant of this deep perception of humanity. When Arjuna wished to cast aside his bow and quiver, when he said, “This is a sin we do and a great destruction of men and brothers, I will forbear,” Sri Krishna, after convincing his intellect of error, proceeded by that marvellous vision described in the eleventh canto of the Gita to stamp the truth of things upon his imagination. Thus run the mighty stanzas:

कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत् प्रवृद्धो लोकान् समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्तः ।

ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे येऽवस्थिताः प्रत्यनीकेषु योधाः ॥

तस्मात्त्वमुत्तिष्ठ यशो लभस्व जित्वा शत्रून् भुङ्क्ष्व राज्यं समृद्धम् ।

मयैवैते निहताः पूर्वमेव निमित्तमात्रं भव सव्यसाचिन् ॥

kālo'smi lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho lokān pravṛttaḥ

ṛte'pi tvāṃ na bhaviṣyanti sarve ye'vasthitāḥ yodhāḥ. (11.32)

tasmāttvamuttiṣṭha yaśo labhasva jitvā śatrūn bhuňkṣva rājyaṃ samṛddham

mayaivaite nihatāḥ pūrvameva nimittamātraṃ bhava savyasācin.

“I am Time who waste and destroy the peoples; lo, I have arisen in my might, I am here to swallow up the nations. Even without thee all they shall not be, the men of war who stand arrayed in the opposing squadrons. Therefore do thou arise and get thee great glory, conquer thy foes and enjoy a great and wealthy empire. For these, they were slain even before and it is I who have slain them; be the occasion only, O Savyasachin.”

It is not as the slow process of Time that Sri Krishna manifests Himself; it is as the Zeitgeist consummating in a moment the work carefully prepared for decades that He appears to Arjuna. All have been moving inevitably towards the catastrophe of Kurukshetra. Men did not know it; those who would have done everything possible to avert the calamity, helped its coming by their action or inaction; those who had a glimpse of it strove in vain to stop the wheels of Fate; Sri Krishna Himself as the niṣkāma karmayogin who does His duty without regard to results, went on that hopeless embassy to Hastinapura; but the Zeitgeist overbore all. It was only afterwards that men saw how like rivers speeding towards the sea, like moths winging towards the lighted flame, all that splendid, powerful and arrogant Indian world with its clans of kings and its weapons and its chariots and its gigantic armies were rushing towards the open mouths of the Destroyer to be lost in His mighty jaws, to be mangled between His gnashing teeth. In the līlā of the Eternal, there are movements that are terrible as well as movements that are sweet and beautiful. The dance of Brindaban is not complete without the death-dance of Kurukshetra; for each is a part of that great harmonic movement of the world which progresses from discord to accord, from hatred and strife to love and brotherhood, from evil to the fulfilment of the evolution by the transformation of suffering and sin into beauty, bliss and good, śīvam, śāntam, śuddham, ānandam.

Who could resist the purpose of the Zeitgeist? There were strong men in India then by the hundred, great philosophers and Yogins, subtle statesmen, leaders of men, kings of thought and action, the efflorescence of a mighty intellectual civilisation at its height. A little turning to the right instead of to the left on the part of a few of these would, it might seem, have averted the whole catastrophe. So Arjuna thought when he flung aside his bow. He was the whole hope of the Pandavas and without him their victory must seem a mere dream and to fight an act of madness. Yet it is to him that the Zeitgeist proclaims the utter helplessness of the mightiest and the sure fulfilment of God's decree. “Even without thee all they shall not be, the men of war who stand arrayed in the opposing squadrons.”  For these men are only alive in the body; in that which stands behind and fulfils itself, they are dead men. Whom God protects who shall slay? Whom God has slain who shall protect? The man who slays is only the occasion, the instrument by which the thing done behind the veil becomes the thing done on this side of it. That which was true of the great slaying at Kurukshetra is true of all things that are done in this world, of all the creation, destruction and preservation that make up the līlā.

The greatness of this teaching is for the great. Those who are commissioned to bring about mighty changes are full of the force of the Zeitgeist. Kali has entered into them and Kali, when she enters into a man, cares nothing for rationality and possibility. She is the force of Nature that whirls the stars in their orbits lightly as a child might swing a ball, and to that force there is nothing impossible. She is aghaṭanaghaṭanapaṭīyasī, very skilful in bringing about the impossible. She is the devātmaśaktiḥ svaguṇair nigūḍhā, the Power of the Divine Spirit hidden in the modes of its own workings, and she needs nothing but time to carry out the purpose with which she is commissioned. She moves in Time and the very movement fulfils itself, creates its means, accomplishes its ends. It is not an accident that she works in one man more than in another. He is chosen because he is a likely vessel, and having chosen him she neither rejects him till the purpose is fulfilled nor allows him to reject her. Therefore Sri Krishna tells Arjuna:

यदहंकारमाश्रित्य न योत्स्य इति मन्यसे ।

मिथ्यैष व्यवसायस्ते प्रकृतिस्त्वां नियोक्ष्यति ॥

yadahaňkāramāśritya na yotsya iti manyase
mithyaiṣa vyavasāyaste prakṛtistvāṃ niyokṣyati

“The thought which thou thinkest and takest refuge in egoism saying, ‘I will not fight’, this thy resolve is a vain thing; Nature will yoke thee to thy work.”

When a man seems to have rejected his work, it merely means that his work is over and Kali leaves him for another. When a man who has carried out a great work is destroyed, it is for the egoism by which he has misused the force within that the force itself breaks him to pieces, as it broke Napoleon. Some instruments are treasured up, some are flung aside and shattered, but all are instruments. This is the greatness of great men, not that by their own strength they can determine great events, but that they are serviceable and specially-forged instruments of the Power which determines them. Mirabeau helped to create the French Revolution, no man more. When he set himself against it and strove, becoming a prop of monarchy, to hold back the wheel, did the French Revolution stop for the backsliding of France's mightiest? Kali put her foot on Mirabeau and he disappeared; but the Revolution went on, for the Revolution was the manifestation of the Zeitgeist, the Revolution was the will of God.

So it is always. The men who prided themselves that great events were their work, because they seemed to have an initial hand in them, go down into the trench of Time and others march forward over their shattered reputations. Those who are swept forward by Kali within them and make no terms with Fate, they alone survive. The greatness of individuals is the greatness of the eternal Energy within.


Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volume 13.- Essays in Philosophy and Yoga: Shorter Works. 1910 1950.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998.- 604 p.

1 1998 ed.: Mahakala the


2 1998 ed.: troughs


3 1998 ed.: onward


4 1998 ed.: to its preordained