Unity in Diversity: Samaj and Universality

A PROUT Globe Resource
Planetary unity, if it is to become reality, must emerge in accord with human psychology. Forced unity will not succeed; nor can unity be awakened through preaching high ideals. Neither approach flows with human psychology; neither provides a foundation upon which to nurture universal outlook. Unity must evolve organically out of our human experience.

In the view of PROUT founder P.R. Sarkar, universalism is best nurtured by building on a people’s pre-existing sense of collective identity, acquired from their shared regional or ethnic heritage. He named his concept of grass-roots socio-economic evolution towards a universal state as samaj, which is a Sanskrit term for “society”.

Collective or ethnic identity is not an obstruction to greater human unity, but is its necessary prerequisite. Sarkar did not deplore the devolutionary tendency, now so prominent, in which the people of Brittany, Quebec, Eritrea, Kurdistan and many other regions are demanding autonomy from larger nation-states, but saw this as a healthy process, one which can further the evolution of planetary unity.

Ethnic and regional groups are the notes which make a song, the words which make a poem, the flowers which form a garden. The problem in creating a song, poem or garden is to give the notes, words or flowers a harmonious relationship. The task is much the same in building a universal society. If human groups are in mutual discord, they will never know harmonious unity. We will have, as we do have, the cacophony of conflict, not the sweet rhythms of peace.

For people to form harmonious relationship—either as individuals or as groups—they first need to feel security and strength of identity. To establish a planetary society, people need to feel strong in their regional or ethic identity before they can embrace a larger unity of human groups. And they need scope to be free and prosperous.

Socio-economic groupification

Nationality is presently defined on the basis of political boundaries. The world’s political boundaries have been defined, for the most part, through the processes of imperialism, war and diplomacy. In essence, geo-political and geo-economic interests have been the predominant forces in shaping national borders. This has resulted in much artificial imposition of national status. In many cases, national boundaries just do not correspond to nationality as it is carried in people’s sentimental feelings. Thus, we find Romanians in Moldavia, Hungarians in Romania, Serbs in Croatia and Bosni-Hercegovnia, and Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan.

Sarkar felt that nationality should be defined on the basis of factors which naturally create mutual affinity between people. He wanted organically formed, not artifically formed, “nations.” As his ideal of nationhood had little to do with the concept of nation as we currently think of it, he found need to adopt new terminology. Speaking of his model states, he used the term “autonomous units” or “self-sufficient units” to emphasize their independence from imperialist forces and their economic self-reliancy. He used “socio-economic units” to indicate that cultural and economic factors should be the primary bases for their formation. And he used samaj, a term which reflects a sense of unified movement, thus emphasizing their internal cohesion and dynamism.

Sarkar identified several factors which provide a natural basis for constituting socio-economic units. These are: (1) same economic problems and potentialities, (2) ethnic similarity, (3) common sentimental legacy, and (4) similar geographical features.

Common economic problems and potentialities

The nature of economic activity people engage in is determined by such factors as technology, raw materials, energy sources, infrastructure, climate, capital and consumer demand. In each region, these factors will create a certain potentiality for economic activity. In the American Great Plains, there is rich topsoil and warm summers with periodic rains, making this area ideal for growing staple grains. The 7,000 islands of the Philippines have ideal conditions for growing coconuts, tropical fruits and hardwoods. Under the Arabian desert, there exists immense oil deposits.

Much of people’s lives are spent engaged in occupational activities and interacting with other people around job related concerns. Directly or indirectly, their jobs relate to local economic potentialities. A worker from Kansas could be a wheat farmer, a combine operator, a farm equipment sales representative, or a banker making farm loans. Their connecting link is the economic potentiality of the Midwest.

In addition to common economic potentialities, regions also face characteristic economic problems. Japan is over-dependent on the import of raw materials. Bengal’s jute production is on the steady decline due to growing popularity of synthetic substitute fibers. Coastal communities in America’s Pacific Northwest are coping with the drop of salmon runs and cut-backs in timber harvesting. Coping with these regional economic problems is a significant feature of regional life. Newspapers in Seattle and Portland are filled with articles about salmon catch quotes and timber harvest levels—news stories that never appear in newspapers outside the Pacific Northwest. Common awareness and interest exists in the size of salmon runs and environmentalist challenges to excess timber harvests. These are common subjects of discussions and the issues of grass roots political action, for these are the matters around which a people’s shared future depends.

There is an additional reason why common economic problems and potentialities are important to consider in the formation of socio-economic units. These units are to strive for strong, self-reliant economies. Economic planning is more efficient where potentialities are similar. And economic problems are better solved if they are the shared concern of a whole region.

Ethnic similarity

Ethnicity is a strong force shaping mutual identity—particularly where there is racial or ethnic suppression. Ethnicity is not a prominent aspect of the identity of most Euro-Americans, but it is for Afro-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans. Similarly, the Kurds in Turkey are more conscious of their ethnicity than are the Turks. The reason, of course, is that ethnicity can become the cause of a people’s getting deprived of dignity and opportunity. The social experience which stems from their ethnicity is shared with all of their kind. All black South Africans know what the experience of apartheid is all about, while Afrikaners can have only a distant, intellectual understanding of apartheid’s reality.

Common sentimental legacy

Sarkar defined sentimental legacy as “the common chord in the collective psychology of a particular group of people which gives them their unique identity and sense of affinity.” It gets created when a collective sentimental feeling gets associated with such shared aspects of cultural life as language, literature, history, traditions, and mannerisms.

Sentimental legacy relates to the sense of social roots transmitted to a people through culture, education and socialization. A Scot’s feeling of kinship with his clan is intimately experienced while marching in plaid kilt, playing his bagpipes. A Cheyenne woman feels part of her tribe while joining with them in traditional dance. A similar sentimental feeling of collective identity will come to a Bengali upon hearing the Bangladesh national anthem, written by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. But, however universal minded a Scotsman may be, he will be less likely to feel sentiment upon hearing Tagore’s Bengali melody, nor can a Bengali be deeply moved by the rhythmic drumbeats and chants accompanying a Cheyenne dance.

Similar geographic features

Geographical features, such as topography, river systems, and climate should also be considered in the formation of socio-economic units. Geography is, of course, directly related with economic potential, and it influences the shaping of sentimental legacy. But it should be considered in its own right, particularly when determining socio-economic unit boundaries. For example, as much as is reasonable, watersheds should be kept intact—not split between neighboring samajas. Boundaries can follow mountain ridges, rather than valley floors. And boundaries should be established in such a way as to minimize inter-regional conflicts over rights to river water usage.

Samaj citizenship

What is required for an individual to qualify as a member of a samaj? What establishes their “citizenship”?

Citizenship is handled in several ways by the different nations. In Israel, full citizenship is automatically granted to any Jew, coming from any part of the world. Even indigenous Palestinians, however, lack full citizenship status. Black South Africans are assigned citizenship in their bantustans, but, until recently, had to carry passes—a kind of alien status—in the townships in which they lived. The newly independent nation of Estonia is requiring citizens to be ethnic Estonians, which would disqualify from citizenship the large number of Russians living there. Most countries grant citizenship if a person is native born, and have some process for giving immigrants opportunity to become citizens.

The approach to establishing membership in a samaj which Sarkar recommended is based on an individual’s identifying with their samaj: “Those who have merged their individual socio-economic interests with the socio-economic interests of the concerning socio-economic unit are the indigenous population of that unit.”

According to this definition, people born in a particular culture, or native to a region, would not be regarded as members of the concerned samaj if their socio-economic interests were not joined with collective interests. The relevance of this consideration is apparent in many economically imperialized developing countries. Here we find local people who collaborate with foreign based transnational corporations to drain resources and capital from their own country. By Sarkar’s definition, these agents of foreign business could not be considered citizens of their land. Nor could workers who come from outside a region, only to work there—such as the Turks in Paris, the Rajasthanis in West Bengal, or the Mexicans in California’s San Juaquin Valley.

Members of a socio-economic unit must have a cultural, as well as an economic, integration with their samaj. At minimum, they should speak the local language, as language is the primary medium of culture.

Cultural suppression

Human psychology is universal in nature, but human expression differs according to the varying cultural styles which exist among the world’s peoples. It is both natural and healthy for cultural diversity to exist, as each group requires a locally adapted means for expressing their ideas, perceptions, feelings and social rhythms. The language of the Innuit is rich in terminology for describing subtle differences in the qualities of snow and ice, while the tongue of the Bedoin is suited to naming subtleties of sand.

Expression of local culture should not be stifled, unless, of course, it has clearly harmful effects. Destruction or suppression of culture is highly detrimental to the wholesome development of a people. Where it occurs, several debilitating mental complexes can arise, including mental demoralization, defeatist mentality and inferiority complex. These complexes are common among the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere—people whose cultures were decimated by Euro-americans. Alcoholism and suicide rates are many times higher for Indians than for other groups in America. And there are reports of indigenous Amazon people so despondent they simply sit down and wait for their death.

Cultural suppression is often linked with economic exploitation. When, through cultural suppression, people come to regard themselves as inferior and lose confidence in their potentialities, they become easy prey for exploiters. Sarkar termed this process “psycho-economic exploitation.” In psycho-economic exploitation, debilitating mental complexes are first instilled in people’s minds, then profit is made on their labor, their resources, and their consumption of foreign produced and unwholesome products. Here again, the situation of native peoples of America provides examples. Navaho laborers were employed by uranium refining plants in the Southwest, where they were subjected to highly toxic work conditions. (Most now suffer from cancer or leukemia.) The big oil and mining corporations gained rights to drill and mine on reservation lands, plundering resources with callous disregard of the land. And native peoples consume an excess of tobacco, alcohol and junk foods.

Psycho-economic exploitation is typically conducted in such a subtle manner that people are hardly aware of their oppressed condition. They welcome in foreign corporations, make due with their low wages, much of which gets spent on coco-cola, Big Macs and Hollywood produced videos. This is obviously advantageous to those who profit from the toil of others, for if people are aware of their exploited condition, there is little chance they will rebel. Commenting on the insidious role complexes induced by cultural suppresson play in human exploitation, Sarkar said: “The inferiority complex is the most deadly disease of the oppressed mass. . . . The defeatist attitude and inferiority complex will first have to be eradicated before a healthy socio-economic unit can be formed.”

Sarkar not only wanted an end to cultural suppression, but also the strengthening of indigenous culture. This will nurture healthy personalities and vitality of spirit—the qualities people need to assert their rights and confidently create their destiny. If each human group possess a vital culture, each can stand with equal dignity, and each can cooperatively direct its potentialities towards common human goals.


Many ethnic and regional groups do not now enjoy the political and economic freedom to determine their own destiny. Examples abound: the Lapps of Scandinavia, the Bretons of France, the Aborigines of Australia, the Tibetans, Kurds, Kerelians, Basques, Zulu . . . (The Latvians, Slovenes, Estonians, Georgians, Croats, Lithuanians and Ukranians have recently been removed from the long list of disenfranchised peoples.)

What interest do oppressed ethnic groups have in the aquarian vision of a planetary society? Very little, actually. They aspire for their autonomy as a people. World government is at best an irrelevant concern, at worst, a threat of yet one more obstacle to self-determination.

Given the condition of these subject groups, their cry for an independent existence is fully justified. If a people are not free to pursue their own social and economic goals, they will never respond enthusiastically to the call for a planetary federation. They will, instead, remain wary of participation in a larger political body, fearing that the world order proposed by the large nation-states is not to be one of free and equal peoples, but one which continues to suppress their culture, rip-off their resources, and exploit their labor.

Humanistic patriotism

For a whole to be strong, its parts must be strong. For planetary society to be dynamic, each socio-economic unit must have a sound economy and cultural vitality. For this, self-determination is necessary. But self-determination—though necessary—is not sufficient for creating human unity. There is nothing inherent in the condition of socio-economic autonomy that prevents a people from being guided by self-serving geo-political interests, nothing that keeps them from getting into the business of empire-building. After all, America started out as a colony, yet its autonomy unleashed the westward expansion of its political boundaries and the eventual global reach of its economic boundaries.

Sarkar was aware of the threat posed by geo-political patriotism. To counteract geo-political patriotism, he advocated inculcation of “humanistic patriotism.” Whereas geo-political patriotism arises out of a people’s narrow identification with their nation, humanistic patriotism gets established through identification with the universal humanity.

How will this universal identification develop? Sarkar believed it can come when people adopt the spiritual outlook that all people are children of the cosmos, and all have realization of transcendental truth as their ultimate goal. This outlook evokes a sentiment of loyalty to the whole human family and facilitates the strengthening of a common link between all people.

Behind Sarkar’s emphasis on building strong socio-economic units lies the spirit of humanistic patriotism. As he stated: “The spirit of samaj is universal, but the application of the spirit is regional.” This expresses the same sentiment as Rene Dubos’ call—now a motto for greens and bioregionalists everywhere—to “Think globally, act locally.”

Copyright PROUT Globe 2011

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