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Stages of individuality

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This article illustrates different stages in the social evolution of individuality by comparing current trends in India and USA.'


The widespread development of individuality in society is relatively a recent phenomenon in the world-at-large. This statement may strike the reader as strange since it is evident that humankind is and has always been nothing other than a group of individual human beings. In what sense could we possibly mean that individuality is only recently emerging as a result of the evolution of humanity?

The difficulty is partially one of semantics. In English, the word individual has two related but different meanings – single and distinctive. It is commonly used to denote a single or particular member of any group, such as each individual member of the family and each individual student in the class. This is not the sense in which we use the word here. By individual, we refer to a member of the society who has acquired his or her own distinctiveness and originality. Each member of the human race is an individual in the sense of being a single, separate physical person. But very few members of the race are really social, psychological and mental individuals.

Marriage East and West

One way to understand this distinction is to note the social differences between East and West and the changes that are rapidly taking place in what were once considered traditional societies around the world. If fact, these changes today closely mirror changes that occurred in Western society some time earlier.

Why are love marriages becoming more common in India? Many people condemn them as a decadent import from the West and a threat to traditional family values that have knit Indian society together for millennium. But despite the intense opposition, love marriages continue to spread. In reality, they are a superficial sign of a more profound change in Indian society -- the evolutionary emergence of individuality in the social collective.

Arranged marriages are ingenious systems that relieve the individual of much strife and heartache by making the family responsible for selecting and securing one’s future spouse. Why then are they beginning to give way to a system in which each person is responsible for selecting, attracting and winning a lifelong partner and is forced to invest enormous mental and emotional energy engaging in that pursuit? Surely arranged marriages are more efficient, less taxing and, judging by divorce rates, far more successful in creating lasting partnerships. What could possibly be the rationale and justification for a change?

Those who think that love marriage is a Western invention and import should recall that Indian tradition is steeped in stories of romantic love from the days of Nala and Damayunti, Arjuna and Draupadi, Savitri and Satyavan. We should also recall that arranged marriages were common in Western society a few hundred years ago and in many places even well into the early 20th Century. The romance and elopement of Romeo and Juliet was a violation of the social norm, not the common practice among aristocrats of their day.

Our purpose here is not to justify or condemn but rather to identify and understand the underlying forces that are feeding this trend. For that we have to examine the role of individuality in the process of social development. For it is the progressive emergence of individuality that is driving this change.

Those raised in the modern Western tradition know that the pursuit of the perfect partner is fraught with difficulty, pain and often enough disappointment and failure. Primary school children are preoccupied about their grooming and dress out of concern about what children of the opposite sex will think of them. The social and psychological pressure on boys and girls to acquire the interpersonal skills needed to attract members of the opposite sex. Youth are concerned that they may never find and win any suitable partner at all. Added to this, the expectation that on completion of their education at 18 or 21 years of age, youth of both sexes are expected to move out of their family homes and become economically self-supporting, even if their parents are quite wealthy.

The basis for all these practices is not the Western family’s heartless indifference to the fortunes of their offspring or the immorality of a decadent society. It springs from a fundamental faith in the value and capacity of the individual human being and the conviction that each individual should be both free and responsible for choosing and determining his or her own destiny.

Physical Individual

Most of us depend on other people and the society around us for our physical survival, our sense of identity, our beliefs, attitudes, manners, behaviors, opinions, ideas, sentiments, ideals, values and even our spiritual faith and practices. We become true individuals only to the extent that we are able and willing to take care of ourselves physically, to maintain ourselves economically, to think and decide for ourselves, to survive and thrive on our own strength, courage and resourcefulness.

When asked about the true criterion for becoming a leader, the CEO of one of America’s largest computer companies replied: “Are you able to make it on your own in Shanghai?” He was one who attributed his success as a leader to what he had learned as a boy struggling for survival in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. To him a true leader is a developed individual who knows how to rely on his own inner strength, judgment and resourcefulness to make tough decisions and get through difficult times. He is not one who is always worried what others think about him, afraid to stand out from the crowd or choose a course that others disagree with.

The immigrants who flocked to America in the 18th and 19th Century, abandoning family and property in search of a new life in a new world became true physical individuals. They were the pioneers who moved West through a barren, hostile wilderness, clearing the forest and fending off dangers from man and beast. Often, living with no police or army for their protection, each man or group had to become a law unto themselves. No wonder, they carried weapons and learned how to use them. They had to hunt or grow and store all their own food, stitch their own clothes, build their own homes, gather firewood to warm themselves during the long, snow-bound winter months when it was too cold even to venture outside. In the process, so many lives were sacrificed for every square mile of land on this sprawling continent. That energy, capacity and self-confidence endures today in the American spirit. It is the energy and confidence of individuality that conquered and raised this nation to its position of world leadership.

Social Individual

We become true individuals socially, only when our social values and actions are determined by our own distinctive judgment and values. When we look around us and at ourselves, we find that nearly all we say and do is in conformity with the beliefs and behavior of other members of our family, community or nation. The clothes we wear, the food we like, our habits, our choice of education and career, the way we greet friends or strangers, our codes of conduct, our judgments of other people, our sense of superiority or inferiority to others which depends on their relative wealth, class, education or caste – all these indicate that we are not distinct social individuals in the true sense. We compensate, of course, in many ways to convince ourselves and others of our uniqueness by affirming our favorite food, colour, dress, author, singer, actor, sportsman etc. But these are only skin-deep appearances. Individuality is not a surface difference. It is born and emerges from deep within us.

Compare the average Indian youth today with his counterpart in the West. The vast majority of American youth decide for themselves what college course to take and career to pursue. Why is it that so many Indian youth are lining up for computer science and medicine? Pressure from parents and peers, rather than personal preference, determines their choice. A good many Westerners even chose their own religion! The Dutch are proud to say, that every Dutchman has his own political party, his own philosophy and his own religion.

When an American dentist told an Indian housewife living in Silicon valley that her tooth had to be extracted, she said she would consult her husband. The dentist laughed at the notion, that a grown up woman could not decide such a matter for herself. The basis for self-reliance and individuality are formed in early childhood. A visitor to America was surprised to see a nine-month old child already eating with a spoon when children back home still need to be fed by their mothers for years after birth.

A spirit of adventure, entrepreneurship and social independence are characteristics of the social individual. The early Indian freedom fighters who dared to think that India could become Independent and a handful of industrialists such as Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata, who set up India’s first large-scale Iron-works in 1901, were among the very few who displayed the attributes of social individuality. In the 19th century, those who traveled outside the country were condemned as impure. Until recently, marrying one of another caste or religion was an unthinkable violation of social norms and even today it’s a rare exception. To quit a secure salaried job to become an entrepreneur is still considered by many an act of madness.

Mental Individual

We become true mental individuals only, when we think and form judgments based on our own mental outlook and understanding. Socrates was forced to consume hemlock for encouraging the youth of ancient Athens to think for themselves. Copernicus was mocked by the conventional society in which he lived when he asserted that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was condemned as a heretic and imprisoned for similar views. Martin Luther was ex-communicated from the Roman Church. Such has, usually been the fate of the mental individual. Coming to one’s own judgment was anathema to the society of that day.

Even today true mental individuality is a rare phenomenon and rarely welcomed where it appears. When presented with a compellingly rational argument that challenged the conventional wisdom of modern science, the former president of a leading international academy of sciences replied: “This view is very interesting and rational, but it will not even be considered by scientists unless it is advocated by one of the leading scientists of the day.” By this he meant that scientists would judge the idea only in terms of the social prestige of the person who presented it, not on its own intrinsic merit. Social conformity, not individual rationality still rules the roost even in the highest academic circles. This points to the intimate relationship between the evolutionary emergence of mind and the emergence of individuality, which will be the theme of the next article in this series.

Spiritual Individual

Beyond, there is the spiritual individual who transcends the limits of the physical, vital and mental. The spiritual individual is not bound by the physical limitations, social pressures or mental horizons of his day and age, not bound even by the limits of karma and ignorance. He lives in the knowledge and freedom of the spirit and is inspired and moved by that liberated consciousness. In India, the sannyasi has been the real leader. The rishi or yogi was the spiritual individual who imposed his spiritual inspiration on society in the guise of religion, which was accepted as culture.

The explorer, the pioneer, the inventor, the entrepreneur, the social reformer, the political revolutionary, the thinker and the sannyasi are examples of individuality at the physical, social, mental and spiritual level. As isolated occurrences, they have appeared in all ages and all parts of the world. But only recently have the traits of true individuality begun to emerge as a widespread characteristic in the general population. It is the power of this emerging individuality that has transformed society over the past few hundred years, revolutionizing the social, political and economic life of humanity. It is the energy, resourcefulness and initiative born of individuality emerging in the masses of humanity that have made America prosperous and are now spreading prosperity around the globe.

The individual is not only the leader and instrument of social progress, scientific knowledge and spiritual liberation. He is the leader and instrument of the world’s spiritual evolution and the key to the ultimate divinization of life on earth.

This article was originally published in | Consecration Magazine, Vol.3, Issue 1, March-April 2006, pg.8, Emergence of the Spiritual Individual Part 2 Minor modifications have been made to the web version.


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Also see:

The True and the Spiritually True Individual

The Internet and the Emerging True Individual

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