In this essay MARK JUERGENSMEYER looks at the responses to old secular nationalisms, which are under siege precisely at a time when they have themselves been weakened by globalization. Their vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways. Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create ethno-religious nation-states.

MARK JUERGENSMEYER is professor of sociology and director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Third edition, California 2003), The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (California 1993), and Religion and Global Civil Society (Oxford 2005).

As Angiras points out in his interesting comment, the present situation in Pondicherry reflects a much larger problem of which Juergensmeyer clarifies some important aspects. We should recall the Mother's statement that the Ashram "is a reduced image of life." (CWM 13:149) It may also be helpful to realize that the uproar in India against an American biography of Sri Aurobindo is in a certain sense an anti-globalization protest — as was, much more dramatically, an event such as the destruction of the World Trade Center. The WTC was targeted as a symbol of the global economic system. The Lives presents Sri Aurobindo in terms that are acceptable to the worldwide intellectual community, thus antagonizing those to whom cultural globalization is threatening. Strangely enough, the attack on The Lives of Sri Aurobindo really got under way when misleading, decontextualized extracts were sent to dozens of people on September 11, 2008.

The irony of seeing this as an anti-globalization movement is that Sri Aurobindo was one of the earliest and most far-seeing writers on globalization, though his work is as yet unknown to theorists in this field. His major work on globalization — focusing on its political aspect — is The Ideal of Human Unity, but globalization is also an important theme of his essays on Indian culture.

Juergensmeyer's essay follows.

Globalization's assault on nationalism

Despite the rapid mobility of peoples, mass migrations, the proliferation of diaspora cultures, and a transnational sense of community provided by internet relationships, national identities persist. In fact they seem to flourish in a global world. And therein lies a paradox. Religious affiliation, while providing a connection to transnational networks, also offers resources for shoring up local identities. Why have limited loyalties and parochial new forms of ethno-religious nationalism surfaced in todays' sea of post-nationality?

History seems poised on the brink of an era of globalization, hardly the time for new national aspirations to emerge. In fact, some observers have cited the appearance of ethnic and religious nationalism in such areas as the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, Algeria and the Middle East, South Asia, Japan, and among right-wing movements in Europe and the United States as evidence that globalization has not reached all quarters of the globe. But is this really the case? Is it possible to see these quests for local identities and new nationalisms not as anomalies in the homogeneity of globalization, but as further examples of its impact?

This is what I would like to explore in this essay. It seems to me that the paradox of new nationalisms in a global world can be explained, in part, by seeing them as products of one or more of several globalizing forces. In many cases, the new ethnic and religious movements are reactions to globalization. They are responses to the insufficiencies of what is often touted as the world's global political standard: the secular constructs of nationalism that are found not only in Europe and the United States but remain in many parts of the former Third World as vestiges of European colonialism.

In this essay I will look at the responses to old secular nationalisms, which are under siege precisely at a time when they have themselves been weakened by globalization. Their vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways. Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create ethno-religious nation-states. Thus these new forms of ethnic and religious politics will remain paradoxical: sometimes aligned with nationalism, sometimes with transnational ideologies, and in both cases standing in uneasy relationship with the globalizing economic and cultural forces of the post-Cold War world.

It should not be surprising that new sociopolitical forms are emerging at this moment of history since globalization is redefining virtually everything on the planet. This includes especially those social and political conventions associated with the nation-state. Among other things, global forces are undermining many of the traditional pillars on which the secular nation-state have been based, such as national sovereignty, economic autonomy, and social identity. As it turns out, however, these aspects of the nation-state have been vulnerable to change for some time.

Born as a stepchild of the European Enlightenment, the idea of the modern nation-state is profound and simple: the state is created by the people within a given national territory. Secular nationalism — the ideology that originally gave the nation-state its legitimacy — contends that a nation's authority is based on the secular idea of a social compact of equals rather than on ethnic ties or sacred mandates. It is a compelling idea, one with pretensions of universal applicability. It reached its widest extent of world-wide acceptance in the mid-twentieth century.

But the latter half of the century was a different story. The secular nation-state proved to be a fragile artifice, especially in those areas of the world where nations had been created by retreating colonial powers — in Africa by Britain, Portugal, Belgium, and France; in Latin America by Spain and Portugal; in South and Southeast Asia by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States; and in Eurasia by the Soviet Union. In some cases boundary disputes led to squabbles among neighboring nations. In others the very idea of the nation was a cause for suspicion.

Many of these imagined nations — some with invented names such as Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and Indonesia — were not accepted by everyone within their territories. In yet other cases, the tasks of administration became too difficult to perform in honest and efficient ways. The newly-created nations had only brief histories of prior colonial control to unite them, and after independence they had only the most modest of economic, administrative, and cultural infrastructures to hold their disparate regions together.

By the 1990s these ties had begun to fray. The global economic market undercut national economies, and the awesome military technology of the US and NATO reduced national armies to border patrols. More significantly the rationale for the nation-state came into question. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-colonial, post-Vietnam critique of Western democracy, the secular basis for the nation-state seemed increasingly open to criticism. In some instances, such as in Yugoslavia, when the ideological glue of secular nationalism began to dissolve, the state fell apart.

The effect of what I have elsewhere called "the loss of faith in secular nationalism" was devastating (Juergensmeyer 1993). Throughout the world, it seemed, nationalism was subject to question, and the scholarly community joined in the task of trying to understand the concept in a post-Cold War and transnational era (Anderson 1983, Gottlieb 1993, Kotkin 1994, Smith 1995, Tamir 1993, Young 1993).[1] Part of the reason for nationalism's shaky status was that it was transported to many parts of the world in the cultural baggage of what Jurgen Habermas has called "the project of modernity" (Habermas 1987, 148) — an ascription to reason and a progressive view of history that many thought to be obsolete. In a multicultural world where a variety of views of modernity are in competition, the very concept of a universal model of secular nationalism became a matter of lively debate.

Globalization challenges the modern idea of nationalism in a variety of ways. These challenges are varied because globalization is multifaceted: the term, after all, refers not to any one thing but to a series of processes. The term embraces not only the global reach of transnational businesses but also their labor supply, currency, and financial instruments. In a broader sense it also refers to the planetary expansion of media and communications technology, popular culture, and environmental concerns. Ultimately it also includes a sense of global citizenship and a commitment to world order.

When one speaks of "globalization," therefore, it is useful to specify which aspect of it one has in mind. It is possible that people in a particular region of the world will experience one kind of globalization but not others. For instance, countries that are brought into contact with economic globalization — by supplying labor for the commodity chains of globalized production — may not experience the globalization of culture and citizenship. In fact, the advent of economic globalization may threaten local identities in such a way as to encourage the protection of local cultures and social identities, sometimes in hostile and defensive ways.

My own studies have demonstrated that some of the most intense movements for ethnic and religious nationalism arise in nations where local leaders have felt exploited by the global economy or believe that somehow the benefits of economic globalization have passed them by (Juergensmeyer 1993, 2000). The global shifts in economic and political power that occurred following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the sudden rise and subsequent fall of Japanese and other Asian economies in the past fifteen years have had significant social repercussions. The public sense of insecurity that has come in the wake of these changes has been felt especially in areas economically devastated by the changes, including those nations and regions that had been under the dominance of the Soviet Union.

These shifts led to a crisis of national purpose in less developed nations as well. A new, postcolonial generation no longer believed in the Westernized vision of India’s Nehru or Egypt’s Nasser. Rather, it wanted to complete the process of decolonialization by asserting the legitimacy of their countries' own traditional values in the public sphere and constructing a national identity based on indigenous culture (Chatterjee 1993). This eagerness was made all the more keen when they observed the global media assault of Western music, videos and films that satellite television beam around the world, and which threaten to obliterate local and traditional forms of cultural expression.

In other cases it has been a different kind of globalization — the emergence of multicultural societies through global diasporas of peoples and cultures, and the suggestion of global military and political control in a "new world order" — that has elicited fear. Perhaps surprisingly, this response has been most intense in the most developed countries of the West which in other ways seem to be the very paradigm of globalization. In the United States, for example, the Christian Identity movement and militia organizations have been fueled by fears of a massive global conspiracy involving liberal American politicians and the United Nations. In Europe this fear of the loss of national identity and control has led to the rise of right wing parties and stridently xenophobic ideologies.

As far-fetched as the idea of a "new world order" of global control may be, there is some truth to the notion that the integration of societies, communication among disparate peoples, and the globalization of culture have brought the world closer together. Although it is unlikely that a cartel of malicious schemers has designed this global trend, its effect on local societies and national identities has nonetheless been profound. It has undermined the modern idea of the nation-state by providing nonnational and transnational forms of economic, social, and cultural interaction. The global economic and social ties of the inhabitants of contemporary global cities are linked together in a way that supercedes the Enlightenment notion that peoples in particular regions are naturally linked together in a social contract. In a global world, it is hard to say where particular regions begin and end. For that matter, it is hard to say how one should define the "people" of a particular nation.

This is where religion and ethnicity step in to redefine public communities. The fading of the nation-state and old forms of secular nationalism have produced both the opportunity for new nationalisms and the need for them. The opportunity has arisen because the old orders seem so weak; and the need for national identity persists because no single alternative form of social cohesion and affiliation has yet appeared to dominate public life the way the nation-state did in the twentieth century. In a curious way, traditional forms of social identity have helped to rescue the idea of national societies. In the increasing absence of any other demarcation of national loyalty and commitment, these old staples — religion, ethnicity and traditional culture — have become resources for national identification.

1. The renewed academic interest in nationalism has spawned two new journals, Nations and Nationalism, and Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. Other journals have devoted special issues to the topic: "Reconstructing Nations and States," Daedalus 122:3, Summer 1993; "Ethnicity and Nationalism," International Journal of Comparative Sociology 33:1-2, January-April 1992 (Anthony D. Smith, Guest Editor); and "Global Culture," Theory, Culture, and Society 7:2-3, June 1990.

Ethnicity and religion to the rescue of nationalism

In the contemporary political climate, therefore, religious and ethnic nationalism provides a solution to the problem of secular politics and global control in a multicultural world. As secular ties have begun to unravel in the post-Soviet and post-colonial era, local leaders have searched for new anchors to ground their social identities and political loyalties. Many have turned to ethnicity and religion. What is ideologically significant about these ethno-religious movements is their creativity. Although many of the framers of the new nationalisms have reached back in history for ancient images and concepts that will give them credibility, theirs are not simply efforts to resuscitate old ideas from the past. These are contemporary ideologies that meet present-day social and political needs.

In the modern context this is a revolutionary notion — that indigenous culture can provide the basis for new political institutions, including resuscitated forms of the nation-state. Movements that support ethno-religious nationalism are, therefore, often confrontational and sometimes violent. They reject the intervention of outsiders and their ideologies and, at the risk of being intolerant, pander to their indigenous cultural bases and enforce traditional social boundaries. It is no surprise, then, that they get into trouble with each other and with defenders of the secular state. Yet even such conflicts with secular modernity serve a purpose for the movements: it helps define who they are as a people and who they are not. They are not, for instance, secularists.

Since secularism is often targeted as the enemy, that enemy is most easily symbolized by things American. America has taken the brunt of religious and ethnic terrorist attacks in recent years, in part because it so aptly symbolizes the transnational secularism that the religious and ethnic nationalists loathe, and in part because America does indeed promote transnational and secular values. For instance, America has a vested economic and political interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This often puts the United States in the position of being a defender of secular governments. Moreover, the United States supports a globalized economy and a modern culture. In a world where villagers in remote corners of the world increasingly have access to MTV, Hollywood movies, and the internet, the images and values that have been projected globally have often been American.

So it is understandable that America would be disdained. What is perplexing to many Americans is why their country would be so severely hated, even caricatured. The demonization of America by many ethno-religious groups fits into a process of delegitimizing secular authority that involves the appropriation of traditional religious images, especially the notion of cosmic war. In such scenarios, competing ethnic and religious groups become foes and scapegoats, and the secular state becomes religion's enemy. Such satanization is aimed at reducing the power of one's opponents and discrediting them. By humiliating them — by making them subhuman — ethno-religious groups assert the superiority of their own moral power.

The future of religious and ethnic politics in a global world

Emerging movements of ethnic and religious politics are therefore ambivalent about globalization. To the extent that they are nationalistic they often oppose the global reach of world government, at least in its secular form. But the more visionary of these movements also at times have their own transnational dimensions, and some dream of world domination shaped in their own ideological images. For this reason one can project at least three different futures for religious and ethnic nationalism in a global world: one where religious and ethnic politics ignore globalization, another where they rail against it, and yet another where they envision their own transnational futures.

Non-globalization: new ethic and religious states

The goal of some ethnic and religious activists is the revival of a nation-state that avoids the effects of globalization. Right-wing movements in Europe and the United States that reject regional and international alliances usually imagine that their nations could return to a self-sufficient economic and political order that would not rely on global networks and transnational associations. 

Where new religious states have emerged, they have tended to be isolationist. In Iran, for instance, the ideology of Islamic nationalism that emerged during and after the 1979 revolution, and that was propounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his political theoretician, Ali Shari'ati, was intensely parochial. It was not until some twenty years later that new movements of moderate Islamic politics encouraged its leaders to move out of their self-imposed international isolation (Wright 2000). The religious politics of Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban was even more strongly isolationist. Led by members of the Pathan ethnic community who were former students of Islamic schools, the religious revolutionaries of the Taliban established a self-contained autocratic state with strict adherence to traditional Islamic codes of behavior (Marsden 1998).

Yet religious politics need not be isolationist. In India, when Hindu nationalists in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), "Indian People's Party," came to power in 1998 — a victory that was consolidated in the national elections of 1999 — some observers feared that India would become isolated from world opinion and global culture as a result. The testing of nuclear weapons as one of the BJP's first acts in power did little to dispel these apprehensions. But in many other ways, including its openness to economic ties and international relations, the BJP has maintained India's interactive role in the world community. Credit for this may be due, in part, to the moderate leadership of the BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the country's most experienced and temperate politicians. The rise of a modern Muslim government in Indonesia has also adopted a tolerant and international stance.

Guerrilla antiglobalism

In other regions of the world it is not the creation of new religious states that is at issue but the breakdown of old secular states with no clear political alternative. In some instances, religious and ethnic activists have contributed to these anarchic conditions. In the former Yugoslavia, for instance, the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo was caused by the collapse of civil order as much as by the efforts to create new ethnic and religious regions. Because these situations have been threats to world order they have provoked the intervention of international forces such as NATO and the UN.

It is, however, world order that many of these religious and ethnic nationalists oppose. They note that the increasingly multicultural societies of most urban communities around the world have undermined traditional cultures and their leaders. They have imagined the United States and the United Nations to be agents of an international conspiracy, one that they think is hell-bent on forming a homogenous world society and a global police state. It was this specter — graphically described in the novel, The Turner Diaries — that one of the novel's greatest fans, Timothy McVeigh, had hoped to forestall by attacking a symbol of federal control in America's heartland. His assault on the Oklahoma City federal building, and other terrorist attacks around the world — including Osama bin Laden's alleged bombing of U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 — were acts of what might be considered "guerrilla antiglobalism."    

Transnational religious and ethnic alliances

Although the members of many radical religious and ethnic groups may appear to fear globalization, what they distrust most are the secular aspects of globalization. They are afraid that global economic forces and cultural values will undercut the legitimacy of their own bases of identity and power. Other aspects of globalization are often perceived by them as neutral, and in some instances, useful for their purposes.

Some groups have a global agenda of their own, a transnational alternative to political nationalism. Increasingly terrorist wars have been waged on an international and transnational scale. When the World Trade Center was demolished in the dramatic aerial assaults of September 11, 2001, it was not just America that was targeted but also the power of the global economic system that the buildings symbolized. Osama bin Ladin’s al Qaeda network was itself a global structure. Its world-wide attacks may be seen as skirmishes in a new Cold War, or, more apocalyptically, a "clash of civilizations," as Samuel Huntington termed it (Huntington 1996).

Another form of religious transnationality may emerge from the international relations of kindred religious states. According to one theory of global Islamic politics that circulated in Egypt in the 1980s and 90s, local movements of Muslim politics were meant to be only the first step in creating a larger Islamic political entity — a consortium of contiguous Muslim nations. In this scenario, religious nationalism would be the precursor of religious  transnationalism. Transnational Islam would lead to Islamic versions of such secular consortia as NAFTA and the European Community. In the Islamic model, however, the divisions among states would eventually wither away when a greater Islamic union is formed.

A third kind of transnational association of religious and ethnic activists has developed in the diaspora of cultures and peoples around the world. Rapid internet communication technologies allow members of ethnic and religious communities to maintain a close association despite their geographic dispersion. These "e-mail ethnicities" are not limited by any political boundaries or national authorities. Expatriate members of separatist communities — such as Irish Republicans, Indian Sikhs, and both Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans — have provided both funding and moral support to their compatriates' causes. In the case of Kurds, their "nation" is spread throughout Europe and the world, united through a variety of modern communications technologies. In some cases these communities long for a nation-state of their own; in other cases they are prepared to maintain their nonstate national identities for the indefinite future.

Identity, power and globalization

Each of these futures contains a paradoxical relationship between the national and globalizing aspects of ethno-religious politics. This suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between certain forms of globalization and religious and ethnic nationalism. It may appear ironic, but the globalism of culture and the emergence of transnational political and economic institutions enhance the need for local identities. They also create the desire for a more localized form of authority and social accountability.

The crucial problems in an era of globalization are identity and control. The two are linked, in that a loss of a sense of belonging leads to a feeling of powerlessness. At the same time, what has been perceived as a loss of faith in secular nationalism is experienced as a loss of agency as well as identity. For these reasons the assertion of traditional forms of religious and ethnic identities are linked to attempts to reclaim personal and cultural power. The vicious outbreaks of religious and ethnic terrorism that has occurred at the beginning of the 21st century can be seen as tragic attempts to regain social control through acts of violence. Until there is a surer sense of citizenship in a global order, therefore, ethno-religious visions of moral order will continue to appear as attractive though often disruptive solutions to the problems of identity and belonging in a global world.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Banisadr, Abolhassan. 1981. The Fundamental Principles and Precepts of Islamic Government. Trans by Mohammad R. Ghanoonparvar. Lexington, KY: Mazda Publishers.

Barber, Benjamin R. 1995. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Times Books.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Connor, Walker. 1994. Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gottlieb, Gidon. 1993. Nation Against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

Habermas, Jurgen. 1987. "Modernity — An Incomplete Project," reprinted in Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan, eds. Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look. Berkeley: University California Press.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1993. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley: University of Press.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2000. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Khomeini, Imam [Ayatollah]. 1985. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations, translated and annotated by Hamid Algar.

London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Orig. pub. by Mizan Press, Berkeley, 1981).

Kotkin, Joel. 1994. Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy. New York: Random House.

Lerner, Yoel. 1995. Author's interview with Yoel Lerner, member of the Yamini Israel political party, Jerusalem, August 17.

Marsden, Peter. 1998. The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. London: Zed Books.

Piscatori, James, ed. 1991. Islamic Fundamentalisms and the Gulf Crisis, Chicago: The Fundamentalism Project, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Smith, Anthony D. 1995. Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era. London: Polity Press.

Tamir, Yael. 1993. Liberal Nationalism. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Wright, Robin. 2000. The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. New York: Knopf.

Young, Crawford, ed. 1993. The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: Nation-State at Bay? Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Angiras on Sun 30 Nov 2008:

The present situation in Pondicherry clearly reflects a much larger problem of which Juergensmeyer clarifies some important aspects. We should recall the Mother's statement that the Ashram "is a reduced image of life." (CWM 13:149)

It may be helpful to realize that the uproar in India against an American biography of Sri Aurobindo is in a certain sense an anti-globalization protest — as was, much more dramatically, an event such as the destruction of the World Trade Center. The WTC was targeted as a symbol of the global economic system. The Lives presents Sri Aurobindo in terms that are acceptable to the worldwide intellectual community, thus antagonizing those to whom cultural globalization is threatening. Strangely enough, the attack on The Lives of Sri Aurobindo really got under way when misleading, decontextualized extracts were sent to dozens of people on September 11, 2008.

The irony of seeing this as an anti-globalization movement is that Sri Aurobindo was one of the earliest and most far-seeing writers on globalization, though his work is as yet unknown to theorists in this field. His major work on globalization — focusing on its political aspect — is, of course, The Ideal of Human Unity, but this is also an important theme of his essays on Indian culture. Perhaps more surprisingly, long-term processes of globalization, which have been under way for thousands of years, form much of the subject of his unfinished epic Ilion.

Ilion deals with an early phase of what Huntington, borrowing a provocative phrase from Bernard Lewis, has more recently called "the clash of civilizations":

Europe and Asia, met on their borders, clashed in the Troad.

This is the "cultural struggle" of which Sri Aurobindo wrote in "Is India Civilised?" There, without using the current term "globalization," he speaks of "a compelling physical oneness forced on us by scientific inventions and modern circumstances." He continues:

But this physical oneness must necessarily bring its mental, cultural and psychological results. At first it will probably accentuate rather than diminish conflict in many directions, enhance political and economic struggles of many kinds and hasten too a cultural struggle. There it may bring about in the end a swallowing unification and a destruction of all other civilisations by one aggressive European type.... On the other hand it may lead to a free concert with some underlying oneness. But the ideal of the entire separateness of the peoples each developing its sharply separatist culture with an alien exclusion law for other leading ideas and cultural forms, although it has been for some time abroad and was growing in vigour, is not likely to prevail. For that to happen the whole aim of unification preparing in Nature must fall to pieces, an improbable but not quite impossible catastrophe. (CWSA 20:64)

The "aim of unification" as it was glimpsed in ancient times is represented in Ilion by the proto-global vision of Achilles, who is portrayed as a precursor of Alexander the Great:

Asia join with Greece, one world from the frozen rivers
Trod by the hooves of the Scythian to farthest undulant Ganges.

A less optimistic view is voiced by the cynical Paris who points to the problem of overpopulation:

But on this earth that is narrow, this stage that is crowded, increasing
One on another we press.

In the depiction of Troy as "a city throned on the hills with her foot on the nations" and "the democracy hated of heaven" one can even find parallels to the resentment of American power today. America is commonly described in a biblical phrase as a "city on a hill." But recall Juergensmeyer's comment: "What is perplexing to many Americans is why their country would be so severely hated...."

The dreams of economic globalizers are articulated in Ilion by Poseidon, the god of the neo-liberals:

Gold shall make men like gods and bind their thoughts into oneness;
Peace I will build with gold and heaven with the pearls of my caverns.

Sri Aurobindo did not encourage these illusions, however:

Even as Troy, so shall Babylon flame up to heaven for the spoiler
Wailed by the merchant afar as he sees the red glow from the ocean.

In the end, the issue for the future is whether the rational Athene or the mystic Apollo will prevail as the leading power in human life. Zeus promises supremacy to his daughter, but only for the time being:

Girl, thou shalt rule with the Greek and the Saxon, the Frank and the Roman.
Worker and fighter and builder and thinker, light of the reason,
Men shall leave all temples to crowd in thy courts, O Athene.
Go then and do my will, prepare man's tribes for their fullness.

Athene realizes that this is not the whole story:

This too I know that I pass preparing the paths of Apollo
And at the end as his sister and slave and bride I must sojourn
Rapt to his courts of mystic light and unbearable brilliance.

Apollo himself speaks of what has sometimes been called "the revenge of God":

Then in their ages of barren light or lucidity fruitful
Whenso the clear gods think they have conquered earth and its mortals,
Hidden God from all eyes, they shall wake from their dream and recoiling
Still they shall find in their paths the fallen and darkened Apollo.

Since Ilion is far from finished, we do not know how it would have ended. Badly for Troy, no doubt. But Sri Aurobindo's view was that in the long run there is no stopping the evolution of consciousness to higher and higher levels, despite all temporary setbacks and appearances to the contrary. As he says through Zeus:

For when the night shall be deepest, dawn shall increase on the mountains
And in the heart of the worst the best shall be born by my wisdom.

Debashish on Sun 30 Nov 2008:


Thanks for the wonderful interpretive introduction to Ilion, showing the aspirant concern with "the ideal of human unity" at work in Sri Aurobindo's reconstructions of pre-modern civilizations. Thanks also for the penetrating quote from "Is India Civilized?" which is uncannily prescient of Juergensmeyer's analysis of contemporary globalization and its fallouts.

It's interesting that even in a much earlier poem (belonging to the pre-Pondicherry — and perhaps even pre-Calcutta — period), Sri Aurobindo introduces a similar "threesome." There he names them Science, Religion and —

... a third behind them came,
Veiled, vague, remote, and had as yet no right
Upon the world, but lived in her own light.

I'm thinking of course of [Sri Aurobindo's poem] "A Vision of Science." Interestingly, during the ascendence of the First Angel, Reason, Religion takes a back seat. But when the regime of Reason reaches its highest levels of self-confidence, it makes a brief appearance:

Heaven was scaled at last
And the loud seas subdued. Distance, resigned
Its strong obstructions to the mastering mind.
So moved that spirit trampling; then it laid
Its hand at last upon itself, how this was made
Wondering, and sought to class and sought to trace
Mind by its forms, the wearer by the dress.
Then the other arose and met that spirit robust,
Who laboured; she now grew a shade who must
Fade wholly away, ...

Religion, characterized earlier as

Flame in her heart but round her brows the night,

doesn't exactly make a bid for the earth in this poem, but issues a warning of doom, which Reason entirely ignores. Again, the consequences are not quite spelled out, but when the reign of Reason seems most established, the Third Angel touches the poet's eyes and we hear a shift of tone, as the voice lifts with the inspiration which we are so familiar with from Savitri, the voice of the seer and the prophet:

I saw the mornings of the future rise,
I heard the voices of an age unborn
That comes behind us and our pallid morn,
And from the heart of an approaching light
One said to man, “Know thyself infinite,
Who shalt do mightier miracles than these,
Infinite, moving mid infinities.”
Then from our hills the ancient answer pealed,
“For Thou, O Splendour, art myself concealed,
And the grey cell contains me not, the star
I outmeasure and am older than the elements are.
Whether on earth or far beyond the sun,
I, stumbling, clouded, am the Eternal One.”

So what is this Third Angel? Clearly, it is not Religion, "who must pass." The Angel brings a light and message from the future, but in response, "From our hills, the ancient answer pealed." I am assuming "our hills" here is India and "the ancient answer" is the clarion-call of the Vedanta — srinvantu viswe amritasya putrah.

This is the call to a global age of spiritual culture and exploration. In Juegensmeyer's article, in fact, he hints at such a possibility — it seems always just under the surface — but he doesn't propose it as a reconciling possibility. It remains the vision of a world torn by Jihad vs. McWorld, as Rich portrayed it in another posting, borrowing the term from Benjamin Barber's book.

That a "post-secular" acceptance of human possibilities exceeding the limits of rationality need not be "irrational" (a sub-mental recourse to superstitions, unexamined intuitions, spirit possessions or dubious oracular authorities) is a tenet that made its appeal to the modern mind from at least the mid or late 19th c., in works of figures like William James, the American Trascendentalists, Aldous Huxley, and a variety of European creative thinkers who may be said to have ushered in what Sri Aurobindo calls "the Subjective Age" in modern culture. But the fullness of this knowledge — not merely knowledge of content but the knowledge of method — did peal out from the ancient hills of India, in the voices of two major figures — Vivekananda and succeeding him, Sr Aurobindo. However, it is perhaps only today, when the problems that beset humankind, have reached an impasse as shown here for example by Juergensmeyer, that we are in a position to appreciate these contributions and seek to reawaken a more integrated sense of this world endeavor. And it is just at this time, when the light of Sri Aurobindo is most needed and an attempt has been made to introduce this light to the modern world mind, that ironically "our hills" have been able to respond with only the warped echo of the dark religions of the most obscure kind.

I completely agree with you that this is in fact in alignment with what Juergensmeyer is talking about — a refusal of neo-liberal globalization by seeking shelter in isolationist dogmas. The results of wrong collective choices at such a time could be disastrous. I can only hope that good sense will assert itself from some quarter soon and find the strength and support to prevail.