By Julian Lines
Around the world as people look for greater synthesis between the spiritual and the mundane, and long for paradigm shifts in planetary consciousness, the new age dreamt of by Sri Aurobindo seems to draw closer
Paris is supposed to be the capital of fashion, New York the capitol of finance. In recent decades cultural trends began in California—for film in Hollywood, for culture, San Francisco—at least before the internet. But through the millennia, India has been the world capital of spirituality. Michael Murphy, founder of the famous Esalen Institute in California (often cited as the cutting edge of https://lifepositive.com/Mind/Body/spirit research) said: “America produces great scientists and athletes, but we have never produced a world-class mystic, ever!”
The Indian connection
Robert Thurman, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, once began a conference by asking who the most famous Indian was. The spontaneous answer was Mahatma Gandhi, but the correct answer is the Buddha. Some students of Christianity believe that Jesus of Nazareth spent time studying in India and even died here. Certainly the rediscovery of hatha yoga, as indicated on a cover of Time magazine last year, reminds us that many generations have gone to the source of Indian spirituality. If Buddhism is the child of Hinduism, then surely on account of numbers, India has had the greatest influence on world culture, much more than any other country.
In the 1960s, the ‘flower children’ combined East Asian, South Asian and contemporary culture into a wave that swept the planet. We had Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as an emblematic book title. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with his Transcendental Meditation and Ravi Shankar’s collaboration with the Beatles made ‘mantra’, ‘guru’ and ‘raga’ part of the lexicon of pop culture. Chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ became another chorus in a popular song heard over radio. But typically, while the fads spread through the breadth of culture in the West, there was a profound lack of depth.
Presently, world culture is being shaped by communications technology. Radio, TV and the internet give a sense of being one planet, but there is also a homogenising effect, especially when those in control are preaching a new religion of scientific materialism. As it sweeps the planet and proclaims Coca Cola as the ‘Real Thing’, those of us seeking a spiritual, sustainable, holistic life in post-industrial US fear India and China will repeat our egregious mistakes.
Some Americans know that despite the veneer of success and military domination, our approach is not viable. We have spent our savings; our topsoil is getting eroded from factory farming and mono-cropping practices. We are addicted to gasoline, fertilisers and pesticides. Nuclear power is another example of bad technology exported around the world. With dangerous waste piling up and no safe solution, and the Russian Chernobyl accident still yielding illnesses and environmental devastation, you would think we would have the humility to promote alternatives.
If you believe, as George W. Bush and his cronies do, that Christ’s return is imminent and true believers are going to be transported to heaven in a great miracle, then fouling our nest is not a big concern. Your worldview, like so much of corporate culture, is only concerned with short-term gains. There is no overpopulation problem in heaven; the bills and the mess are left to the next generation.
Who or what is going to save us from ourselves? Are there any seeds of hope? Do we have to pump every drop of oil out of the planet and pollute our air with it before someone says, “enough!”?
Evolutionary possibility<br /> Sri Aurobindo came to tell us of a higher harmony between the spiritual and material; that in a cosmic game of hide and seek, the Divine is involved in matter and all of evolution is this gradual unfolding and discovery of God in matter, that matter is Mother.
We didn’t need Darwin to know of evolution. In the wonderful allegory of the ten avatars of Vishnu, the Divine’s role in evolution is summarised as follows: Matsya the fish, Kurma the turtle, Varaha the boar, Narasimha the man-lion, Vamana the dwarf, Parashurama the warrior, Rama the dutiful prince, Krishna the righteous charioteer, Buddha the kind reformer, and Kalki the messiah. From the oceans to the prophet, each realm includes and transcends the previous. At each stage, the Divine is leading us further, into a higher, wider sphere of existence. What is the next step?
The answer comes in two variations on the same theme: integration and synthesis. Sri Aurobindo called his yoga purna or Integral Yoga. His major work describing his practice is The Synthesis of Yoga. What he is synthesising is knowledge, devotion and selfless work, emphasising the perfection of our mind, life and bodies, ultimately manifesting in a new species.
Sri Aurobindo clearly saw India’s failures, the misinterpretation of the law of karma and the caste system into a world-negating sense of fatalism, and called for a new vision (or a reaffirmation of the lost vision of the Vedic rishis). At the end of The Human Cycle, his writings on social and political thought, Sri Aurobindo outlines some conditions for a coming Spiritual Age. He cites our capacity for “conscious evolution” and that “all great changes find their first clear and effective power and their direct shaping force in the mind and spirit of the individual or of a limited number of individuals”. There has to be a new exchange between these individuals and the mass of humanity, so the collective can manifest the new vision. The pioneers bring back their discoveries to a receptive collective which, like the teams ascending a mountain, allow the leaders to go higher and higher.
Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, the Mother, sought to establish a new Force on the planet to create this evolutionary possibility.
If one is looking for signs of this manifestation in present times, the use of the words ‘integral’, ‘evolutionary’ and ‘synthesis’ are good indicators. There are already visible shoots of a green revolution that champions a new paradigm of voluntary simplicity and sustainability, where the world is seen holistically as related complex systems. From this perspective, we are in the throes of birth pangs, the caterpillar is forming its chrysalis; the old forms are breaking down.
There are many pioneers who have seen beyond the limitations of the religion of materialism and sought to reshape Western culture. For instance, R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor, mathematician and architect, used to employ the analogy of a metal alloy to exemplify ‘synergy’. That is, the combination of two things created a third, whose properties could not have been predicted by its constituent elements.
Synergy is the behaviour of a whole system, unpredicted by the sum of its parts. A social synergy would take place if the materialism and pioneering risk-taking from the West and the intuitive wisdom and psycho-spiritual disciplines from the East could be combined into a new paradigm for individuals and communities.
There are thousands of experiments in collective living currently operational all over the planet in search of a new way of living. Many are part of the Global Ecovillage Network, GEN (gen.ecovillage.org). While there is much diversity in this movement, a respect for the gifts of nature and their preservation, encompassed in the word ‘sustainability’, is a defining characteristic. Beyond respect and acceptance of diversity is a celebration of individual and cultural uniqueness. It is the harmonisation of the individual and the collective.
The most ambitious of these experiments is a direct outflow of Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a ‘Gnostic’ community. The laboratory was the Sri Aurobindo Ashram; the ‘field experiment’ Auroville. The latter, founded by the Mother in 1968, is based on Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a Gnostic community. Auroville encompasses all the problems and possibilities of an ongoing spiritual experiment. It is wonderful that India could host such a profound attempt at a “universal township”.
Buckminster Fuller was a great admirer of Sri Aurobindo and followed the progress of Auroville with interest. He participated in the celebration of Sri Aurobindo’s birth centenary in 1972 in New Delhi.
In the US, the seed for many social experiments in the late 1960’s through the present was the aforementioned Esalen Institute, founded by Michael Murphy, who was a student of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. Esalen has explored boundaries of consciousness and peak experiences in healing and in sports. Murphy wrote on cases of miracle cures and self-transcendence in the well-documented The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. His most recent book is called The Life We Are Given: A Long-Term Program for Realizing the Potential of Body, Mind, Heart, and Soul (Inner Work Book).
Those who long for a paradigm shift and are interested in the work such as that of Murphy or Barbara Marx Hubbard (www.evolve.org) are often called ‘cultural creatives’. They are in search of their highest human potential and discover that they are drawn to the allegory of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly, that there is a great leap forward to be made. And many of them discover that an Indian nationalist leader, poet and sage had the same vision more than 90 years ago in Pondicherry.
One of these ‘cultural creatives’ is a Democrat running for President in the US. Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Ohio, is a vegan who has read and appreciates Sri Aurobindo’s vision. He was the 2003 winner of the Gandhi Peace Prize and has proposed establishing a ‘Department of Peace’. Hopefully, he is the first of many who choose to lead guided by a true inner vision, who are listening within.
Sri Aurobindo termed the inner spiritual guide as the ‘psychic being’. This was the divine inner guide in yoga, the discovery of which would lead to self-transformation. Each of us has to take up the responsibility to make progress in our own lives and honour and support the progress of those who have gone ahead. To paraphrase the Mother, we must let the past ‘BE’ past and boldly spring towards future realisations. Julian Lines has worked on behalf of Auroville since 1972. He is President of the Matagiri Sri Aurobindo Center in New York, US, and is on the Board of Auroville International.
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