The Creative Humanism of Dr. Santi Nath Chattopadhyay

Glen T. Martin


Dr. Santi Nath Chattopadhyay should be placed among the important peace leaders in today’s India. For many years he has energetically pursued peace through an amazing variety of activities: as a professor of philosophy at various institutions, including department head at Bangabasi College (University of Kolkata) from which he has retired, as founder and leader of the International Society for Intercultural Studies and Research (ISISAR), as peace researcher and thinker who has published numerous books and articles, as organizer of international peace conferences, complete with peace marches and press conferences, and as guest lecturer on peace in many countries around the world.

His philosophy of Creative Humanism as the path to peace draws upon a vast range of Eastern and Western philosophical roots, envisioning a dynamic synthesis of East and West around the vision of truly awakened and transformed human beings embracing the unity in diversity of living together in peace upon the Earth. I would like to describe Professor Chattopadhyay’s Creative Humanism through examining five key ideas that he connects with this vision: infinity, universality, harmony, growth, and freedom. In doing so, I will draw on additional sources that I believe help illuminate this vision.

Infinity. In his paper on Rabindranath Tagore entitled “Tagore’s Global Vision of Universal Man,” Professor Chattopadhyay quotes Tagore’s book The Religion of Man on the concept of the infinite: “the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human” (2013: 741). Creative humanism does not rest on a naturalism and scientism denying the spiritual and transcendental aspects of human life. Nor does it rest on religious absolutism that denies the independent existence of human beings and their freedom (1998: 118). Rather, creative humanism recognizes the infinite possibilities and the dimension of spirit that informs human life, permeating and transforming the life of the body and the assumptions of scientific determinism.

In Western thought one thinks immediately of the Renaissance philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa in his profound work De Docta Ignorantia. All knowledge, Cusa tells us, involves “relations and proportions.” All knowledge, therefore, gives us finite relationships, finite proportions, finite empirical truths. We realize immediately that finite knowledge cannot get us to the “being” of things, the utter immediacy of the reality of things as we encounter them in phenomenal existence. We encounter the “learned ignorance” of awakening to the Infinite imminent within, and immediate to, our human lives. The body and empirical realities are not denied by Cusa, but are permeated by the infinite that is imminent within all things, an imminence that is simultaneously transcendent to the empirical dimension (Cf. Cassirer 1972).

From the 15th century of Cusa we can leap forward to the 20th century of Emmanuel Levinas and still encounter the infinite. As with Cusa, the starting point for Levinas is the nature of human knowledge: “knowledge is always an adequation between thought and what it thinks” (1985: 60). Like the definition of knowledge as always involving [finite] relations and proportions, Levinas sees the structure of human knowledge as adequation with the being of the world insofar as these can be reduced to sameness through the use of universal terms: “these are trees,” one can say, “these are human beings, these are the laws of entropy,” etc. However, there is one particular aspect of human experience that defies reduction to such generic universals such as trees, human beings, or laws, and hence to finite being and knowledge. That is, human beings as Other—human beings encountered in the depths of their freedom and subjective otherness. We encounter these depths, incommensurable with all knowledge and categorization under concepts of “the same,” reflected in “the infinity in the human face.”

For Levinas, “this revelation of infinity does not lead to the acceptance of any dogmatic content.” It is not as if we had gone beyond knowledge to some religious opinion or other. Rather, “infinity overflows the thought that thinks it.” However, as for Cusa, the encounter with infinity is an integral aspect of our everyday experience. It is not an abstract religious idea of some absolute God: “the relation with infinity will have to be stated in terms other than those of objective experience; but if experience precisely means a relation with the absolutely other, that is, with what overflows thought, the relation with infinity accomplishes experience in the fullest sense of the word” (1969: 25). Infinity is there in the absolute mystery and otherness of human beings. We confront other persons as a freedom that is not commensurable with our ideas of universal causality or mechanical laws of nature and physiology and the body.

We confront other persons, in the words of Professor Chattopadhyay, as infinite possibilities in their creative freedom. We see the hope of peace and a transformed world reflected in the encompassing unity in diversity that awakened persons bring to experience. We see the possibility of growth into the fullness of this experience for human beings. We find hope, in the words of Tagore, in an “infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human” (2013: 741). Goodness and love are also features of universality. What, then, does the concept of “universality” itself play in the philosophy of creative humanism?

Universality. “Universality” does not mean here the fundamental connection between general, generic terms and human knowledge, understood by both Cusa and Levinas to give us only the finite, never the infinite of “learned ignorance.” Rather, what is universal in creative humanism is the progressive overcoming of the egoistic point of view and the beginnings of living life from an awareness of one’s universal humanity. Professor Chattopadhyay often quotes Karl Marx in his writings, recognizing in Marx the movement toward overcoming selfish egoism and living from the depths of our common humanity. As psychologist Robert J. Lifton puts this: “One moves toward becoming what the early Karl Marx called a “species-being,” a fully human being. Once established, the species identification itself contributes to centering and grounding. In no way eliminated, prior identifications are, rather, brought into new alignment within a more inclusive sense of self” (1993: 231).

Our more inclusive sense of self is our universal self: that which we share with all other human beings, giving rise to compassion, mutual identification, and the harmony of unity in diversity. This is what Marx called our common “species being.” Such universality may also include a religious aspect. The movement beyond the phenomenal ego to the universal self (Atman), of course, has long been fundamental to the Indian philosophical and religious tradition in which Professor Chattopadhyay is steeped. It is this sense in which people can be said to be “religious” as reflected in their ways of living and thinking. He quotes Tagore to express this sense of authentic religiosity: “To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma” (2013: 740). We have here an expression similar to the Karmayoga of Mahatma Gandhi. The person who has grown into his or her universality does not need to withdraw into a church or temple and adhere to a set of dogmas about God or Brahman. Such a person rather lives from the universality of his or her humanity, from the actualized life of creative humanism.

These insights are expressed by a number of thinkers, East and West. Western psychologist and philosopher, Eric Fromm, for example, writes that:

We consider people to be “religious” because they say they believe in God. Is there any difficulty in saying this? Is there any reality in it, except that the words are uttered? Obviously I am speaking here about an experience which should constitute the reality behind the words. What is this experience? It is one of recognizing oneself as part of humanity, of living according to a set of values in which the full experience of love, justice, truth, is the dominant goal of life to which everything else is subordinated; it means a constant striving to develop one’s powers of love and reason to a point at which a new harmony with the world is attained; it means striving for humility, to see one’s identity with all beings, and to give up the illusion of a separate, indestructible ego. (1962: 156)

The new harmony with the world is attained when we begin living from our universality, when we “give up the illusion of a separate, indestructible ego” and begin living from our identity with all other human beings. Here we have the religion of creative humanism, an experiential actualization of a “divine” state of being, not affirmation of dogmas nor empty performance of rituals. As Professor Chattopadhyay relates this with respect to Tagore: one must “work for others through love [and] develop a selfless feeling or disinterested outlook in man, which urges him to be related with all other men intimately” (2013: 751). The creative awareness of infinity and the living from one’s universality complement one another. The intolerance and bigotry of egoistic existence are abandoned for a universal love, compassion, and respect for unity in diversity that takes its place. The consequence is peace, a new way of living together on the Earth: intercultural, interpersonal, and inter-social harmony.

Harmony. Professor Chattopadhyay characterizes Tagore’s “global vision of universal man” as a “highest state in human life” that “creates in love a state of unity or harmony that does not deny the nature or existence of man and world” (2013: 743). He speaks of existence, as envisioned by Tagore as “a harmonious development of human existence where he himself becomes Creative Man” (2013: 755). The concept of harmony functions both as a designation of a state of being or condition of persons or communities and as a description of the process of development of all the powers and dimensions of our human being. We seek harmony with the divine ground of existence, harmony within our personal being, intercultural harmony with the diversity of all other human beings, and social-political-economic harmony in a democratic world of peace with justice.

In his essay “Universal Good, Human Freedom, and Peace” Professor Chattopadhyay articulates further the dynamic state of being that will constitute the harmony of peace in the world. Human beings will need to discover local and global democracy in three fundamental dimensions of human existence. He distinguishes levels of community, from the local level to the global level and asserts the need for community integration and development at all levels (2005: 932-933). People will need to discover “Cultural Democracy,” at all these levels, in which all traditions and religions are recognized in their contributions to a culture of peace with justice. Cultural democracy means that thinkers, scholars, and teachers will need to seek the answers to fundamental human problems within all the cultures, religions, and philosophies of the planet, including those from the East and the West. All cultures share at bottom a profound and integral vision of what constitutes peace. Cultural democracy draws on them all.

Secondly, the world will require “Political Democracy,” from the local to the international levels. This is essential for justice and for ending the war-system that is threatening life on Earth. Political democracy helps protect equal human rights for all and overcomes traditional prejudices of caste, race, or religion. The very framework of civil liberties that it provides can serve to enhance a multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith community for the world. Professor Chattopadhyay speaks of a “peace ethics” as promoting the harmony of cultures, protecting human rights, and fostering human communication (2005: 933). Ultimately, political democracy will require a “federation of the Earth,” democratic political processes for all of humankind.

The third form of democracy fostering harmony will center on “an equitable distribution of the collective economic and environmental goods available to mankind among nation states” (2005: 932-933), in other words, economic democracy. As a number of thinkers have pointed out in recent years, human freedom in society requires both political rights that are respected and arrangements to ensure economic well-being (e.g., Gewirth 1982: 3-6). Starving or destitute people are not likely to make good citizens participating in good government. Authentic democracy within each of these dimensions establishes harmony for human existence on the Earth. Poverty deprives one of many freedoms, both to satisfy one’s basic needs and to participate meaningfully in civil society. One assumes both that these forms of democracy follow from creative humanism and that they would only operate successfully if peopled by citizens who had reached the maturity of creative humanism.

Cultural, political, and economic democracy give us a multidimensional picture of the nature of the harmony that is essential to peace: “All these processes basically need the development of the intercultural model for economic, political, and social advancements of all communities in harmony in cultivating Human Rights as the basis of dignity and uniformity in men” (2005: 933). Hence, harmony is both the progressive actualization of a dynamic democratic social condition for the Earth and the process of proper individual human development: “Man, as a self-conscious being, has the sense of both limitation and perfections, so he can realize the absolute state of perfection through a self-transcending process toward the realization of the final stage of good as universality in harmony, expanding creative humanistic states and processes of global value” (2005: 924).

Growth. Professor Chattopadhyay uses the concept of growth as part of the framework for his philosophical work, not as a separate category. But his work clearly presupposes a model of cultural, social, personal, and human growth and development. The last quote in the above paragraph, for example, makes one immediately think of Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs.” In general, for Maslow, the needs that are lower and more basic in the hierarchy must be satisfied first before the higher needs become manifest and demand satisfaction. Lowest are physiological needs, then safety and security needs, then belongingness and community needs, then self-esteem needs, then self-actualization and, finally, self-transcendence. The final good of “universality in harmony” requires planetary conditions that satisfy all these needs.

In her famous book In a Different Voice (1982),Carol Gilligan studied the developmental stages of boys and girls and men and women. We begin early in life in the “egocentric” stage, then we move to the “ethnocentric” stage, and, with proper education and developmental options, to the “world-centric” stage of universality, equality, and compassion. The highest stage of development Gilligan calls “integrated” in which masculine universality and feminine caring emerge at a transpersonal level. I take this to be the equivalent of the growth trajectory implicit in creative humanism. Integration, Gilligan’s highest stage, resonates with the “universality in harmony” of creative humanism.

Ken Wilber, a well-known contemporary thinker focusing on the growth and spiritual freedom of human beings, in his book The Integral Vision, has incorporated the developmental model across the board to include cultural, personal, organizational, and scientific forms of development. I have inserted a chart adapted from the Integral Vision (2007: 72 & 180) in order to show this process in an historically and visually compelling format.

Wilber’s chart edited. Cited on Page 30 of Martin, Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence. The yellow boxes indicate the ways that Global Capitalism and Militarized Nations interfere with human development as envisioned by Wilber.

The enlightened understanding embodied within “integral theory,” for Wilber, means that we seek and promote integration within “all quadrants and all levels” (AQAL). I would suggest, in terms of this chart, that creative humanism operates within at least three of the four quadrants designated in the diagram: the “I” quadrant (upper right), the “WE” quadrant (lower right), and the “ITS” or “Systems” quadrant (lower left). The “IT” quadrant, on the other hand, represents scientific progress in understanding nature, which must, of course, be understood and appropriated by creative humanism. However, a separate argument would be needed (today being made by a number of thinkers) to show that science is following a similar trajectory to the other three quadrants (cf. Martin 2008, Ch. 3).

In terms of the “I” quadrant, the familiar developmental model for human beings that is assumed by Tagore, Vivekananda, Fromm, Marx, and others, roughly involves, when expanded into Wilber’s language, development from the instinctual self, through stages of magic, egocentric, mythic, and achiever selves, to the sensitive self, the holistic self, and the integral self. These last three higher stages of development of the self I take to be resonant with creative humanism. On the other hand, in the “WE” quadrant, human beings, as a single biological and civilizational species, develop (in the areas of culture and worldview) from the archaic to the higher stages named “pluralistic, holistic, and integral.” The similarities, just as Professor Chattopadhyay points out in related contexts, are not accidental. Civilization, like the self, must develop toward pluralistic, holistic, and integral levels through creative humanism.

Above, I also discussed Professor Chattopadhyay’s insights that society needs to develop through three forms of democratic organization and participation: cultural, political, and economic. These developments are reflected in the “ITS” or “Systems” segment of the chart—corporate states (perhaps the dominant mode today) need to be superseded by “value communities, holistic commons, and integral mesh networks,” all of which emphasize harmonious, cooperative, and socialized forms of organization and governance. In this adapted version of the chart, I have added the “Earth Federation under the Earth Constitution” to the second highest of Wilber’s “Systems” stages. Professor Chattopadhyay, today, often speaks of the need for “a Federation of Earth.” Indeed, that is the developmental need of the hour as human beings grow to holistic and integral stages culturally and personally—we also need to grow in terms of a democratic and equitable world system that makes possible and further facilitates creative humanism for all people.

Freedom. Freedom appears to be a multi-dimensional concept in creative humanism. Professor Chattopadhyay states, on behalf of Tagore, that “freedom is both an objective challenge and a subjective state” (2013: 743). Freedom has multiple meanings. It means freedom from the ego, freedom from the determinism and mechanistic points of view, and freedom from political and economic oppression. These negative aspects of freedom are not to be minimized. The unredeemed and untranscended ego may well result in a life of personal slavery to greed, power, selfishness, lust, inner disharmony, and/or misery. Similarly, economic oppression means a life of misery and want for more than half the Earth’s seven billion citizens, making it nearly impossible for them to actualize their own possibilities for a life of creative humanism.

But freedom also has a very positive dimension to it within the philosophy of creative humanism. The creative humanist is free for wonder, free for love, free for the service of others, free for a life of truth, beauty, and goodness (2005: 923). In his essay on “Philosophy of Human Freedom: A Sociocultural Prospect,” Professor Chattopadhyay declares that “it is transcendent-experiential in nature in the form of experiencing transcendent value or ideal in different ways.” Hence freedom is also “spiritual freedom”—“which may be observed as the realization of transcendent value of divinity in creative form of manifesting humanity in human existence in different degrees” (1998: 111-112).

All of these aspects of freedom may perhaps be subsumed under the freedom of creativity: that creativity named in the phrase “creative humanism.” A human being can be hemmed in, conditioned, and determined by what Professor Chattopadhyay terms the many “limitations” and “contradictions” that befall human existence. But there is an additional aspect of our human being that can perhaps be called our “divine potential,” an aspect in which we become open to creative possibilities, sources of energy, insights, and ways of being that make possible transcendence of these limitations and contradictions in larger freedom. Erich Fromm describes this aspect in terms of the real task or telos within human life:

Living is a process of continuous birth. The tragedy in the life of most of us is that we die before we are fully born. Being born, however, does not only mean to be free from the womb, the lap, the hand, etc., but also to be free to be active and creative. Just as the infant must breathe once the umbilical cord is cut, so man must be active and creative at every moment of birth. To the extent that man is fully born, he finds a new kind of rootedness: that life in his creative relatedness to the world, and in the ensuing experience of solidarity with all men and with all nature. From being passively rooted in nature and in the womb, man becomes one again—but this time actively and creatively with all life. (1981: 7)

In creative humanism we do not escape the world into a religious asceticism or blind dogmatism. Nor do we sink into the limitations and contradictions of the world to a life of self-indulgence, deterministic mechanisms, or power relationships. Both of these false paths ignore the process of continuous birthing into the creative possibilities of our human situation. Our freedom is connected with this continual process of encountering the self-transcending possibilities inherent in our human situation—ever more deeply actualizing infinity, universality, and the dynamic harmony of unity in diversity.

The unfolding of our universal nature actualizes this creative freedom. But this essay on freedom also quotes Karl Marx who wrote about the oppression and slavery of the exploited classes and looked forward to a society where the freedom of communal life and prosperity was actualized for all. It is clear that freedom requires all three dimensions: freedom from egoism, limitations, and want, freedom for a life of perpetual creative realization and transcendence, and the freedom fostered by mutually supportive and cooperative forms of social organization.

Both social and economic freedom require a fundamental understanding of the social nature of human existence. In the Tagore essay, Professor Chattopadhyay quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Problem of Method: “And thus in willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends upon our own.” The traditional conception of Western liberalism, derived from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others, is predicated on a false understanding of human freedom. The individual is not prior to society, not an isolated ego defending supposed innate rights over and against all other people or government. Social, political, and economic forms of freedom arise through the recognition that my freedom and that of others are interdependent and interrelated.

In his essay on world peace, Professor Chattopadhyay mentions four western thinkers in connection with philosophical ideas of a “whole or system”: G.W.F. Hegel, T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet (926). One of the things these “Western Idealists” have in common is the notion of what is often called positive political and social freedom. They realized that our social and political freedom arises from the level of civil, cooperative, and harmonious human interaction that we find only in relation to other persons. An egocentric competitive society diminishes freedom and requires each to beware of the others. A fragmented, class-divided society diminishes freedom for the vast majority. A world society predicated on the war-system and fragmented sovereign nation-states diminishes the freedom and security of everybody.

However, what Hegel called the “ethical life in community(Sittlichkeit),or what Green called an orientation toward the “common good,” express visions of positive social and political freedom in which members of society respect one another and cooperate with one another making the actualization of everyone’s life-goals much more freely possible. As Bosanquet puts this, freedom requires that “the private will, so far as it is distinguished at all, finds harmony and expansion, must be coeval with social life, and, in short, with humanity” (in Harris 2008: 110). What Professor Chattopadhyay appears to mean by cultural, political, and economic democracy approximates this “positive freedom” developed by these thinkers. The creatively free person, living from his or her universal humanity, is the complement of the cooperative, socialized society, in which freedom arises from the mutual empowerment provided by the whole of society.

Conclusion. Freedom may appear to be the end or goal of proper human and socio-cultural development, but it is also an inseparable part of this nexus of concepts that we have elucidated in this paper. It is not only an end, it is the means as well. Freedom cannot, therefore, be separated from the infinite, nor from universality, nor harmony. It is the creative process of actualizing these dimensions in concrete human affairs. No authentic freedom can exist without these other three dimensions, and these other aspects of creative humanism are inseparable from freedom.

 Infinity breaks into human life in the immense realization that we confront unspeakable depths that cannot be subsumed within the limited world view of scientific mechanism. Universality arises in human life as we grow out of our early, limited egoism into what Marx called our “species being” and begin to live from our larger, more expansive, and freer fundamental humanity. Harmony, both inner and outer, is the result of this process of breaking free through self-transcendence and continuous birth in creativity.

The “human” in the phrase “creative humanism” is articulated through these ideas of infinity, universality, harmony, growth, and freedom. Through this intercultural, historical process, we are learning what it means to be a human being. Creative humanism is both the telos of human development and the means to authentic human development in the personal, cultural, and social-systems dimensions of existence. The ends and the means are not entirely separable. There is no path to deep awareness in relation to infinity, universality, harmony, and freedom. These are themselves the path. We must awaken to the fundamental possibilities that confront us daily within our concrete human situation.  

Professor Chattopadhyay is an eloquent spokesperson for Creative Humanism. He communicates to us its immense significance. This philosophical vision is itself fundamental to our common human project, to our struggle to become more fully human. We all need to foster and elucidate this vision. Our future on this planet may well depend on actualizing, for ourselves and humanity, a common life of creative humanism.

Works Cited

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Chattopadhyay, Santi Nath, ed. (1998). Freedom. Calcutta: Naya Porkash Publishers.

Chattopadhyay, Santi Nath, ed. (2005). World Peace: Problems of Global Understanding and Prospect of Harmony. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak Publishers.

Chattopadhyay, Santi Nath, ed. (2013). Rediscovering Rabindranath. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak Publishers.

Fromm, Erich (1962). Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. New York: Simon & Schuster Publishers.

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Levinas, Emmanuel (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Alphonso Lingis, trans. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1985). Ethics and Infinity. Richard A. Cohen, trans. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Lifton, Robert Jay (1993). The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. New York: Basic Books.

Martin, Glen T. (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Wilber, Ken (2007). The Integral Vision. Boston & London: Shambhala Publishers.