The Management of Power : Ascent of the self

The Management of Power : Ascent of the self
Power Tends To Corrupt

I am reminded of that immortal utterance of Lord Acton, ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Very few people, however, care to remember the words that followed this statement. Lord Acton said, ‘Great men are almost always bad men’.[1] But for his merciful ‘almost’, this apparently simple pronouncement could be shocking! Needless to say, Lord Acton’s concept of great men was limited to those who were famous. As we know, all men who are truly great are not famous in the ordinary sense of the term, and all those who are famous may not be truly great. There are only a few who are great and famous at the same time. Even though Lord Acton died way back in 1902, he seems to have a prevision for the nature of a majority of the famous men of our times.

Yes, he died before witnessing the two great World Wars and several other manifestations of struggles among the powerful, as well as power-struggles. Had he been a witness to them, he would have amended his observation – should we say improved upon it? – and said, ‘Power not corrupts, but also severely perverts.’ So far as corruption is concerned, it had been at least possible for Edward Gibbon to condone it, describing it as the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.[2] Or we can say, if we cannot afford to nurture Gibbon’s robust optimism, corruption is a degradation of conscience. But perversion? It is the very reversal of conscience. You cannot describe Hitler’s Auschwitz – what he organized at that concentration camp – even with the most powerful phrases of condemnation placed at your disposal by human beings. They were probably enacted by darker forces, which used which used the human beings as their instruments. Perversion becomes perfect when power is sought for its own sake, or for the sake of the seeker’s ego and vanity. As Aldous Huxley warned,

Of all social, moral and spiritual problems, that of power is the most chronically urgent and the most difficult of solution. Craving for power is not vice of the body. Consequently, none of the limitations imposed by a tired or satiated physiology upon gluttony, intemperance and lust apply. Growing with every successive satisfaction, the appetite for power can manifest itself indefinitely, without interruption by bodily fatigue or sickness.[3]

Perhaps all the noteworthy creatures big and small – among them monkeys, tigers, lions – desire power, but they do so instinctively. Only the conscious beings desire power consciously. And this category does not comprise human beings alone. Mysticism believes that there were conscious beings even before the evolution of man. They were supernatural. In Roman and Greek mythology we find a new generation of gods fighting an old generation and overthrowing it. In Indian mythology we find a sustained narration of battles for power between the Devas and the Asuras, continuing for millennia. Among all the ancient mythologies, it is in Indian mythology that we see a distinct diagnosis of power as means and power as an end. For the Asuras, power was an end by itself, Indian mythology drives home the point that while power is safe and constructive when wielded by the right consciousness, it is dangerous when wielded by the consciousness. And this is stressed by none other than Sita in Ramayana. Upon Rama declaring more than once, in the early phase of their stay in the forest, that he was armed with bow and arrows in order to rid the forest of the demons, Sita tells him this story: There was a young hermit who remained engrossed in deep meditation most of the time. Once during an interval between two periods of his meditation, he found a sword sheath lying near him. Little did he know that it had been deliberately placed there in order to test his austerity. He touched it and felt thrilled. Next time he unsheathed it. The glittering weapon fascinated him. Then he tried the sword on a plant and was amused to find the plant sliced. Thereafter he applied it on an animal. Soon he was under the spell of the sword and, forgetting his penance, went on using it mercilessly on all kinds of creatures. No wonder that he had a straight plunge into hell after his death. Very politely then Sita warned that Rama should not be under the spell of his own weapon as the young hermit was!

So, we see that power can use a man instead of man using it. ‘It is a strange desire to seek power and lose liberty’, said Francis Bacon.[4] A little introspection and circumspection would convince us of its veracity. Some of you may have read George Orwell’s reminiscences of his days as a policeman in Burma. One day an elephant proves violent. Orwell, as a protector of the natives, is called upon to tackle the beast. By the time he locates the elephant, it is no longer ‘mast’ – a temporary craziness in which elephants occasionally pass – and is ‘no more dangerous than a cow’. He wishes to leave it in peace. Bu the very next moment he grows conscious of the two-thousand-strong crowd stalking him, anxious to see the Sahib perform a miracle with his gun. He could feel the two thousand will pressing upon him to kill the elephant.

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.[5]

Orwell might seem to draw an absolutely objective conclusion from a subjective experience. But the truth is, while Orwell was conscious of the situation though not it master, many who use power do not even suspect that they are being led to use it by the powers which deceptively look powerless!

Spiritual lore tells us that evil is not a self-existent entity, but a distortion or imperfect projection of a quality with creative potentiality. Once we realize that all that we know as evil is only a distortion or wrong placement of a certain quality, energy or power, we can, if we are absolutely alert, detect the precise movement which tricks us into a false preoccupation. And awareness of this fact and the necessary alertness will be helpful, not only in regard to power, but also in regard to everything else we desire. For example, we desire money. To begin with, it is necessary for our survival. But when we have got enough to meet that end, we will desire more money because that would ensure us the freedom to do as we like, to be happy in the way we like. My freedom to choose between Darjeeling and Geneva, as to where I should spend my summer would depend on how much I have. Here, money is a physical representation of the element of freedom and freedom is a Divine quality. But what about those who develop the blind habit of acquisitiveness, those who, after acquiring enough money to last ten times the longevity they are expected to enjoy, still go on striving to have more till their last breaths? They surrender freedom-the-end to a mere means for freedom. They forget the end, and are enslaved to the means. This is the trick Nature, Prakriti, the lower self steeped in ignorance, plays on man.

Personal And Impersonal Power

Before we proceed further on the management or mismanagement of power, let us look at the various scopes of power. As I see it, there can be two major approaches to power – impersonal and personal.

‘Impersonal Power’ (excluding Nature’s Powers) can be classified as:

1. Political Power (Monarchy to elected Parliament)

2. Economic Power

3. Collective Power (Association, Trade Union, Party, etc.)

4. Scientific and Technological Power.

And this is how we can classify ‘Personal Power’:

1. Physical Power

2. Vital Power

3. Mental Power

4. Psychic or Soul Power.

Seen from yet another angle, power can be 1. inherited, 2. earned or 3. usurped. Power not earned can be dangerous. A while ago I happened to read an article by Chakraborty in which he refers to an event in the Mahabharata.[6] Sage Dronacharya, a great expert in the military science of his time, imparted the secret of Brahmastra to his trusted disciple, Arjuna. This was resented by the sage’s son and disciple, Ashvatthama. He demanded the knowledge of the secret and the reluctant but indulgent father had to impart it to him. The result, of course, was disastrous.

There has always been an interaction between Power Impersonal and Power Personal. How a king or a ruler uses the Impersonal Power at his disposal depends on his Personal Power – physical, vital, mental and psychic. The same law of interaction applies to people wielding economic or technological power. Legend tells us that when there was a severe drought in the ancient Tamil kingdom and King Thondaiman was distraught, sage Agastya led him to king Kavera of Coorg. The sage who had spent some time on the Sahyadri hills, knew that a new river was to emerge out of the hills. As advised by the sage, the king’s workers stood ready at the foot of the hills and the sage sat in meditation, waiting for the auspicious moment when the flow would descend. The sage applied his psychic power and the king’s workers applied their physical power to direct the river towards the drought-hit land.

The ideal management of power, needless to say depends on a harmony between the Impersonal and the Personal Powers. The loftier the Personal Power, the more constructive and fruitful becomes the application of the Impersonal Power.

Evolutionary Process Of Life

The question that should arise in our minds at this stage is, what is the goal of this harmony? It is not different from the goal or the goals towards which the whole mankind has been on the march since times immemorial. They are, as Sri Aurobindo identifies them in the first chapter of his magnum opus, The Life Divine, entitled, ‘The Human Aspiration’: – God, Light, Freedom, Bliss and Immortality. Tracing the primeval point in the evolutionary process at which life became conscious of its being a self, he says in the chapter entitled ‘Death, Desire and Incapacity’,

…thrown into the constant cosmic interchange of Force in the universe as a poor, limited, individual existence, Life at first helplessly suffers and obeys the giant interplay with only a mechanical reaction upon all that attacks, devours, enjoys, uses, drives it. But as consciousness develops, as the light of its own being emerges from the inert darkness of the involutionary sleep, the individual existence becomes dimly aware of the power in it and seeks first nervously and then mentally to master, use and enjoy the play. This awakening to the power in it is the gradual awakening to self.[7]

But the principle or the law of Evolution would not allow man to remain content with this mere awakening to his puny self. Says Sri Aurobindo in the aforesaid chapter of The Life Divine:

Life in the individual becomes more and more aware in its depths that it too is the will-force of Sachchidananda which is master of the universe and it aspires itself to be individually master of its own world. To realize its own power and no master as well as to know its world is therefore the increasing impulse of all individual life; that impulse is an essential feature of the growing self-manifestation of the Divine in cosmic existence.[8]

This law of growth within us operates in various ways: new inspirations help us transcend the limitations which, for an earlier inspiration, were the goal. This urge for transcendence generally takes the form of an idealism. In fact, every human being has an ideal to follow, be he conscious of it or not. If the ideal itself at times becomes a rigid limitation, that is a different matter. But is it this sense of idealism which gives him the confidence that he is not a mere animal, merely alive and with no other goal. Once the celebrated social reformer of Gujarat, Ravi Shankar Maharaj, was persuading a thief named Fula belonging to a tribe hereditarily practising burglary, to give up his vocation. Replied the man, ‘Maharaj, sometimes Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, forced into boarding in a house not her own, longs to be liberated and scattered. I can hear her crying out from miles away. My heart calls out to me…Hence I move and help liberate the wealth so choked up, scatter and expand her.’[9]

From this curious manifestation of idealism to more acceptable ones like bringing up one’s children in a happy manner and inspiring ones like patriotic sacrifices or service to humanity, the levels of this human trait of idealism are numerous.

Says Sri Aurobindo,

…the animal is satisfied with a modicum of necessity; the Gods are content with their splendours. But man cannot rest permanently until he reaches some highest good. He is the greatest of living beings because he is the most discontented, he feels most the pressure of limitations. He alone, perhaps, is capable of being seized by the divine frenzy for a remote ideal.[10]

A conscious man recognizes this frenzy for a remote ideal as his aspiration to grow Godward, from his little self to his higher and truer Self. And this need not lead him away from the hard realities of the world, into any ascetic pattern of existence, for nothing is outside the Divine and, as we learn from the Gita, even as gross a place as a battlefield can be turned into a field for Yoga, provided one has offered one’s energy and action to the Divine. The right management and application of power can go a long way in ensuring this transition. Says Sri Aurobindo,

It is a mistake of the ethical or religious mind to condemn Power as itself a thing not to be accepted or sought after because naturally corrupting and evil, in spite of its apparent justification by a majority of instances, this is at its core a blind and irrational prejudice. However corrupted and misused, as Love and Knowledge too are corrupted and misused, Power is divine and put here for a divine use. Shakti, Will, Power is the driver of the worlds and, whether it be Knowledge-Force, or Love-Force or Life-Force or Action-Force or Body-Force, is always spiritual in its origin and divine in its character. It is the use of it made in the Ignorance by brute, man or Titan that has to be cast aside and replaced by its great natural—even if to us supernormal—action led by an inner consciousness which is in tune with the Infinite and the Eternal. The integral Yoga cannot reject the works of Life and be satisfied with an inward experience only; it has to go inward in order to change the outward, making the Life-Force a part and a working of a Yoga-Energy which is in touch with the Divine and divine in its guidance.[11]

Sri Aurobindo visualized man as an evolving being, capable of transforming himself into a sublime new race, if he responds to the call of evolution. At present mankind is passing through an evolutionary crisis. The primeval inconscience still holds man in its grip; on the other hand the call for growing towards a new life is irresistible. He is confused and is prone to misuse all his attributes. Power is no exception. While the evolutionary force is not likely to depend on our conduct for realizing its own ultimate purpose, our failure to understand it or unwillingness to collaborate with it may result in the chaos being prolonged, to the detriment of Our peace, happiness and may be, even our very existence as a species.

Since man is a conscious being, capable of discriminating between the desirable and the undesirable, between steps that are progressive in civilization and steps that are regressive – above all between the sense or feeling that ennobles him and the sense and the feeling that makes him feel degraded within himself, the Evolutionary Force will naturally avail man’s conscious collaboration with it in advancing into the uncharted horizons of his destiny. This process can be helped if man’s will for true progress is matched by a conscious application of his power to translate the will into reality. While the Indian mystic concept informs us that the whole creation is a manifestation of Shakti, it also runs by the innate Shakti. What we understand as power is only an aspect of this inexhaustibly creative phenomenon. In his evolutionary march from darkness to light, from a condition of unconsciousness to ever-expanding spheres of consciousness, man has used his personal inherent powers as well as the impersonal powers he has mastered, in both destructive and constructive ways, depending on the quality of his consciousness or, to be more precise, the quality of his ego. The Evolutionary Force of course, could ultimately turn the outcomes of even man’s destructive activities to something helpful – an Alexander’s military expedition into India can, in the course of time, be responsible for a creative interaction between the oriental and the occidental philosophies, or arts and sculptures. Also, once in a while a lucky man could, through his utterly egoistic and so-called successful exercise of power, receive a blow to his own small self and discover his own higher self or Self or Self power. The classic example of this possibility is Emperor Ashoka. The self of Chandashoka, Ashoka the Terrible, drives him to wage a devastating war against Kalinga – but he emerges out of the catastrophe as Dharmashoka, Ashoka the Righteous – established in his Self.

The world is no longer the same. A hundred-fold manifestation of power including technological revolution, rapid communication embracing men, matters and ideas, has made it possible for man to transcend his little ego. Physically, the world is ready to become one home for the human fraternity, but psychologically man is yet to embrace the world in his self. In other words, man has performed a revolution with matter; it is time he performed a revolution with his mind. There is nothing intriguing in the question whether it is proper management of power which would facilitate a transition from self to Self, or it is the transition that would inspire and enable man to manage power in the right way. The Evolutionary Force is not likely to work according to our logical priorities or rigidities, for it is far superior to our mind. What is indispensable is the need for man to have trust in his own future and his willingness to delve into his own consciousness in order to locate the Self, far loftier than the hotchpotch of sentiments and emotions, old passions and perceptions he knows as his self.

[1] Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, edited by J.N.Figgis and R.V. Laurence, Appendix.

[2] Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, New York: The Modern Library, 1932.

[3] Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.

[4] Francis Bacon, ‘Of Great Place’, in Bacon’s Essays, London: Dent, 1962.

[5] George Orwell, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in Adventures in English Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1991.

[6] S.K. Chakroborty, ‘Rising Technology and Falling Ethics?’, Journal of Human Values 3: 1, January–June 1997, pp.103–8.

[7] Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993, p. 191.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Javerchand Meghani, The Earthen Lamps, trans. By Vinod Neghani, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1989.

[10] Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine.

[11] Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1991.


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.