On Conservation and Progress

This is an essay by Sri Aurobindo analyzing the two antipodal forces – conservative and progressive – which bedevil the human mind and tear society apart in country after country across the globe.  This essay first appeared in volume II (August 1915 – July 1916) of the Arya magazine which was written and edited by Sri Aurobindo.

Mankind thinks naturally in extremes or else reconciles by a patchwork and compromise. Whether he makes a fetish of moderation or surrenders himself to the enthusiasm of the single idea, the human being misses always truth of vision and the right pitch of action because instead of seeing, feeling and becoming in obedience to his nature like other animate existences he tries always to measure things by a standard he has set up in his intelligence. But it is the character of his intelligence that it finds it an easy task to distinguish and separate but is clumsy in combining. When it combines, it tends to artificialise and falsify. It feels at ease in pursuing a single idea to its logical consequences and in viewing things from a single standpoint; but to harmonise different ideas in action and to view the facts from different standpoints is contrary to its native impulse; therefore it does that badly, with an ill grace and without mastery. Oftenest it makes an incongruous patchwork rather than a harmony. The human mind is strong and swift in analysis; it synthesises with labour and imperfectly and does not feel at home in its synthesis. It divides, opposes and, placed between the oppositions it creates, becomes an eager partisan of one side or another; but to think wisely and impartially and with a certain totality is irksome and disgusting to the normal human being.

All human action as all human thought suffers from these disabilities. For it is seduced by a trenchant idea which it follows without proper attention to collateral issues, to necessary companion ideas, to the contrary forces in operation, or else it regards these merely as enemies, brands them as pure falsehood and evil and strives with more or less violence to crush them out of existence. Then it sees other ideas which it attempts to realise in turn, either adding them to its past notions and possessions or else rejecting these entirely for the new light; it makes a fresh war and a new clearance and denies its past work in the interest of a future attainment. But it has also its repentances, its returns, its recall and re-throning of banished gods and even of lifeless ghosts and phantoms to which it gives a temporary and false appearance of life. And on the way it has continually its doubts, scruples, hesitations, its pretentious assumptions of a sage moderation and a gradual and cautious advance. But human moderation is usually a wiseacre and a botcher; it sews a patch of new velvet on old fustian or of new fustian on old velvet and admires its deplorable handiwork. And its cautious advance means an accumulation of shams, fictions and dead conventions till the burden of falsehood becomes too great for life to bear and a violent revolution is necessary to deliver the soul of humanity out of the immobilising cerements of the past. Such is the type of our progress; it is the advance of an ignorant and purblind but always light-attracted spirit, a being half-animal, half-god, stumbling forward through the bewildering jungle of its own errors.

This characteristic of human mentality shows itself in the opposition we create between conservation and progress. Nothing in the universe can really stand still because everything there is a mould of Time and the very essence of Time is change by a movement forward. It is true that the world’s movement is not in a straight line; there are cycles, there are spirals; but still it circles, not round the same point always, but round an ever advancing centre, and therefore it never returns exactly upon its old path and never goes really backward. As for standing still, it is an impossibility, a delusion, a fiction. Only the spirit is stable; the soul and body of things are in eternal motion. And in this motion there are the three determining powers of the past, future and present, — the present a horizontal and constantly shifting line without breadth between a vast realised infinity that both holds back and impels and a vast unrealised infinity that both repels and attracts.

The past is both a drag and a force for progress. It is all that has created the present and a great part of the force that is creating the future. For the past is not dead; its forms are gone and had to go, otherwise the present would not have come into being: but its soul, its power, its essence lives veiled in the present and ever-accumulating, growing, deepening will live on in the future. Every human being holds in and behind him all the past of his own race, of humanity and of himself; these three things determine his starting-point and pursue him through his life’s progress. It is in the force of this past, in the strength which its huge conservations give to him that he confronts the unillumined abysses of the future and plunges forward into the depths of its unrealised infinities. But also it is a drag, partly because man afraid of the unknown clings to the old forms of which he is sure, the old foundations which feel so safe under his feet, the old props round which so many of his attachments and associations cast their tenacious tendrils, but also partly because the forces of the past keep their careful hold on him so as to restrain him in his uncertain course and prevent the progress from becoming a precipitation.

The future repels us even while it irresistibly attracts. The repulsion lies partly in our own natural recoil from the unknown, because every step into this unknown is a wager between life and death; every decision we make may mean either the destruction or the greater fulfilment of what we now are, of the name and form to which we are attached. But also it lies in the future itself; for there, governing that future, there are not only powers which call us to fulfil them and attract us with an irresistible force but other powers which have to be conquered and do not desire to yield themselves. The future is a sphinx with two minds, an energy which offers itself and denies, gives itself and resists, seeks to enthrone us and seeks to slay. But the conquest has to be attempted, the wager has to be accepted. We have to face the future’s offer of death as well as its offer of life, and it need not alarm us, for it is by constant death to our old names and forms that we shall live most vitally in greater and newer forms and names. Go on we must; for if we do not, Time itself will force us forward in spite of our fancied immobility. And this is the most pitiable and dangerous movement of all. For what can be more pitiable than to be borne helplessly forward clinging to the old that disintegrates in spite of our efforts and shrieking frantically to the dead ghosts and dissolving fragments of the past to save us alive? And what can be more dangerous than to impose immobility on that which is in its nature mobile? This means an increasing and horrible rottenness; it means an attempt to persist on as a putrifying and stinking corpse instead of a living and self- renewing energetic creature. the greatest spirits are therefore those who have no fear of the future, who accept its challenge and its wager; they have that sublime trust in the God or Power that guides the world, that high audacity of the human soul to wrestle with the infinite and realise the impossible, that wise and warrior confidence in its ultimate destiny which marks the Avatars and prophets and great innovators and renovators.

If we consider carefully we shall see that the past is indeed a huge force of conservation, but of conservation that is not immobile, that on the contrary offers itself as material for change and new realisation; that the present is the constant change and new actual realisation which the past desires and compels; and that the future is that force of new realisation not yet actual towards which the past was moving and for the sake of which it lived. Then we perceive that there is no real opposition between these three; we see that they are part of a single movement, a sort of Trinity of Vishnu-Brahma-Maheshwara fulfilling by an inseparable action the one Deity. Yet the human mind in its mania of division and opposition seeks to set them at strife and ranges humanity into various camps, the partisans of the past, the partisans of the present, the partisans of the future, the partisans of all sorts of compromises between the three Forces. Nature makes good use of the struggle between these partisans and her method is necessary in our present state of passionate ignorance and egoistic obstinacy; but nonetheless is it from the point of view of a higher knowledge a pitiably ignorant struggle.

The partisans of the future call themselves the party of progress, the children of light and denounce the past as ignorant, evil, a mass of errors and abuses; their view alone has the monopoly of the light, the truth, the good — a light, good and truth which will equally be denounced as error and evil by succeeding generations. The partisans of the present look with horror upon all progress as an impious and abominable plunge into error and evil and degeneration and ruin; for them the present is the culmination of humanity, — as previous “present” times were for all the preceding generations and as the future which they abhor will be for these unprogressive souls if they should then reincarnate; they will then defend it with the same passion and asperity against another future as they now attack it in the interests of the present. The partisans of the past are of two kinds. The first admit the defects of the present but support it in so far as it still cherishes the principles of the high, perfect, faultless, adorable past, that golden age of the race or community, and because even if somewhat degenerate, its forms are a bulwark against the impiety of progress; if they admit any change, it is in the direction of the past that they seek it. A second kind condemn the present root and branch as degenerate, hateful, horrible, vicious, accursed; they erect a past form as the hope of a humanity returning to the wisdom of its forefathers. And to such quarrels of children the intellectuals and the leaders of thought and faith lend the power of the specious or moving word and the striking idea and the emotional fervour or religious ardour which they conceive to be the very voice and light and force of Truth itself in its utter self-revelation.

The true thinker can dispense with the éclat which attaches to the leader of partisans. He will strive to see this great divine movement as a whole, to know in its large lines the divine intention and goal in it without seeking to fix arbitrarily its details; he will strive to understand the greatness and profound meaning of the past without attaching himself to its forms, for he knows that forms must change and only the formless endures and that the past can never be repeated, but only its essence preserved, its power, its soul of good and its massed impulse towards a greater self-fulfilment; he will accept the actual realisations of the present as a stage and nothing more, keenly appreciating its defects, self-satisfied errors, presumptuous pretensions because these are the chief enemies of progress, but not ignoring the truth and good that it has gained; and he will sound the future to understand what the Divine in it is seeking to realise, not only at the present moment, not only in the next generation, but beyond, and for that he will speak, strive, if need be battle, since battle is the method still used by Nature in humanity, even when all the while he knows that there is more yet beyond beside which, when it comes to light, the truth he has seized will seem erroneous and limited. Therefore he will act without presumption and egoism, knowing that his own errors and those which he combats are alike necessary forces in that labour and movement of human life towards the growing Truth and Good by which there increases shadowily the figure of a far-off divine Ideal[1].


Sri Aurobindo.  Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, CWSA vol. 13, pp 127-132.

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15 thoughts on “On Conservation and Progress

    1. Alok

      Hi Sandeep,
      I have few questions which are linked.
      What is gross, subtle and causal plane? Do they correspond to Sri Aurobindonian term Physical, vital and mental? Of course Sri Aurobindo has further finer sub divisions. Can we refer to “real idea” as mentioned by Sri Aurobindo as the ideas in the causal plane? Beyound the causal world is the Turiya is it right understanding? Is the astral body same as subtle physical body?
      Isn’t it the division and conflict plaguing the mankind starts with different ideas in the causal world? Supermind is part of the causal world or not?

      1. Sandeep Post author

        Alok: What is gross, subtle and causal plane? Do they correspond to Sri Aurobindonian term Physical, vital and mental? Of course Sri Aurobindo has further finer sub divisions.

        Different sages have given slightly contrasting definitions of these planes. It is not important to know the precise difference as long as one has an idea of what they are. One can assume the following:

        causal=karana is combination of anandamaya and vijnanamaya kosha (bliss and supramental worlds)
        subtle=sukshma is combination of vital and mental (pranamaya and manomaya)
        gross=sthula is the physical (annamaya)

        See the section on “Ontological division” under Constitution of Man where references are given.

        Alok: Can we refer to “real idea” as mentioned by Sri Aurobindo as the ideas in the causal plane?

        Yes, Real-idea is original idea in the Supramental plane which creates forms and personalities in the world

        Sri Aurobindo says “On the plane of mind you have abstractions. It is the mind’s way of representing realities of planes higher than the mind. Behind these abstractions there is a Reality. On the plane above the mind there are no abstractions, there are realities and powers. For instance, you form an abstract idea in the mind about the Supermind. When you get to the Supermind you find it is not an abstraction at all. It is more intensely concrete than Matter, something quite overwhelming in its concrete-ness. That is why I called it the Real-Idea and not an “abstract idea”. In that sense there is nothing more concrete than God. Even if we were on the pure mental plane we would find mind much more concrete and real. But as we are on the physical plane we always think the mind more abstract. Before the Supermind, Matter dwindles into a shadow.” (A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo)

        Alok: Beyound the causal world is the Turiya is it right understanding?

        Turiya in Sanskrit means “the fourth” in which all three normal states of man – waking, dreaming, deep sleep are subsumed. It is a state of consciousness rather than a plane or world.

        The Mother described how she didn’t need to sleep anymore in the following letter to her son, Andre. This is an example of Turiya:

        3 July 1927: It is true that for a long time I have not slept in the usual sense of the word. That is to say, at no time do I fall back into the inconscience which is the sign of ordinary sleep. But I give my body the rest it needs, that is, two or three hours of lying down in an absolute immobility, but in which the whole being, mental, psychic, vital and physical, enters into a complete rest made of perfect peace, absolute silence and total immobility, while the consciousness remains completely awake; or else I enter into an internal activity of one or more states of the being, an activity which constitutes the occult work and which, needless to say, is also perfectly conscious. So I can say, in all truth, that I never lose consciousness throughout the twenty-four hours which thus form an unbroken sequence, and that I no longer experience ordinary sleep, while yet giving my body the rest that it needs.

        Alok: Is the astral body same as subtle physical body?

        No, the subtle-physical may be a new term coined by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to define a sheath closer to the physical body. They may have experienced something different and therefore created further subdivision within the astral body. See Twelve Occult dimensions

        Alok: Isn’t it the division and conflict plaguing the mankind starts with different ideas in the causal world? Supermind is part of the causal world or not?

        yes to both. People are capable of living only a few ideas at a time. See the chapter “Supermind as Creator” in the Life Divine.

  1. mike

    l’ve always associated the ‘vital body’ with the commonly termed ‘astral body’ in occult literature, and the ‘subtle physical’ with the ‘etheric body’.

    l notice on the theosophical scale that ‘causal’ would refer to ‘higher mental’, which to them is formless, l believe, but would this be SA’s Supramental or just the ‘mental worlds’ beneath the ‘overmind’? Did theosophists know about what SA calls the ‘Supramental’ – they do talk about the level beyond the causal as Bodhi or plane of lntuition, l think, which l think SA puts lower down.
    Some say that blavatsky was taught by Theon, and l assume he knew about these Higher regions.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Mike: l’ve always associated the ‘vital body’ with the commonly termed ‘astral body’ in occult literature, and the ‘subtle physical’ with the ‘etheric body’.

      Yes! subtle-physical should map to etheric. I didn’t think of that.

      I am not aware of the theosophist scale.

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  4. donsalmon

    Hey Sandeep – i don’t know if you’re still around, but if so, I have a question. I also don’t know if you know much about how “conservative” and “liberal” are used in the West, particularly in America – but having said that, here goes;

    Do you think what Sri Aurobindo wrote in this article has any relation to what is going on today? I read somewhere, in an Evening Talk, i think, where Sri Aurobindo said that personally, he was most inclined toward anarchism and communism, but again, I don’t know if that would be relevant to today. Just curious if you have any thoughts on this.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Everything that Sri Aurobindo wrote is True for *Eternity* and uncontestable. You just have to accept and read what he wrote over and over again until it makes sense.

      Before you go fire at me on all cylinders, let me hasten to add that I am joking. So are you suggesting that American conservatives and liberals do not tally at all with the above description ?

      Sri Aurobindo is also quoted in the Evening Talks : “Internationalism is all right, we accept it on its own plane. But we must have “nations” first”.

      It is hard to say what exactly his final thoughts on this matter were. Maybe some combination of anarchism in individual spiritual evolution, combined with reformed communism in society and an amity between nations ?

      1. donsalmon

        Thanks Sandeep – of course, far be it for me to ever question the eternal veracity of every word ever penned by Sri A!!

        Well, yes, the Americans do somewhat. I’m kind of wondering how anybody who has actually read Sri Aurobindo could ever believe he would sympathize with the Koch Brothers libertarian philosophy (there’s a few IYers on Auroconference and elsewhere). But perhaps you aren’t familiar with that brand of insanity over here.

        Anyway just asking – I’m looking into it some more – if I ever gain some more insight, will let you know:>))

      2. Sandeep Post author

        This article is more about cultural conservatives who want to retain their values rather than economic conservatives who want to retain their wealth.

        On this topic, I came across a funny tweet : “African-Americans used to work for free before they became lazy”.

  5. mike

    “just FYI – there was a very pleasant eruption of climate change denialism on Auroconf recently – got me to thinking about this.”

    Yeah, lt’s incredibly confusing.
    There are so many brands out there. l thought Climate Change was the same as Global Warming, but no, lt isn’t lol

    “Thus while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing. Human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change. However, because the terms are causally related, they are often used interchangeably in normal daily communications”
    And then you have Global Cooling and Global Dimming – we’re actually heading for another lce-age according to some.
    Of course, the alternative media is in Full Denial as always..


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