By Bindu Mohanty
Sri Aurobindo could be called the most radical spiritual master ever, who challenged not only perceptions and theories but also our very idea of reality. His integral vision of life and spirituality, his theory of evolution of not only consciousness but matter as well, place him at the head of cutting edge thinkers of all time. Here, we present an overview of his work and philosophy, and just why it’s so important to study him
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), regarded as one of India’s greatest philosopher-sages, formulated a scientific and spiritual vision of evolution that envisages a complete transformation of the world and the birth of a new spiritualised race. The scope and uniqueness of Sri Aurobindo’s work is mirrored in his unusual life experience.
Genesis of genius
Born Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose in Kolkata, he was sent to England to study at age seven. According to his father’s wishes, he received an entirely Occidental education without any contact with Indian languages or culture. A brilliant scholar of Greek and Latin, Sri Aurobindo was also well-versed in French, German and Italian. By the time he graduated from Cambridge, he was steeped in European culture. Returning to India at 21, he learnt Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, thereby assimilating the spirit of Indian culture and civilisation. Sri Aurobindo thus represents a remarkable synthesis of Indian and Western traditions.
His return to India also marked a phase of intense involvement with the nationalist movement. What began with writing articles about issues of national concern led to Sri Aurobindo’s assuming, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others, leadership of the ‘extremist’ faction of the Congress that wanted radical action for the country’s freedom. In 1906, the daily Bande Mataram was started and Sri Aurobindo became its chief editor. Overnight, the paper became a mighty force in Indian politics.
Sri Aurobindo was prosecuted for sedition in July 1907, but the charges could not be proved. Meanwhile, differences of policy were building up between the moderates and the nationalists. At a historic session of the Indian National Congress in Surat, the party split and the nationalists led by Sri Aurobindo and Tilak held a separate meeting.
The atmosphere in Bengal had tensed. The British Government let loose repressive measures to crush resistance. In this charged atmosphere, two youths threw a bomb at a magistrate’s
horse carriage. Immediately the police raided Manicktolla Gardens, a family property of Sri Aurobindo, where revolutionaries were undergoing training. Sri Aurobindo was arrested and kept in solitary confinement.
The year he spent in prison marked an important turning point. It was a period of intense sadhana, when he had the experience of Krishna as the Immanent Divine. Thereafter Aurobindo Ghose, the fiery revolutionary, became Sri Aurobindo, the yogi, philosopher and master.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision, detailed in over 30 volumes, traces the human race’s evolution through anthropology, sociology, politics, psychology, culture, and religion. Most of his major works, namely The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Secret of the Veda, The Ideal of Human Unity, and The Human Cycle, were written simultaneously in the period 1914-1920 and serialised in a monthly philosophical review, The Arya.
The genius of Sri Aurobindo lies in the fact that he successfully reworks esoteric Indian spiritual thought in terms accessible to the modern thinker. In the foreword to Greater Psychology, noted transpersonal thinker Ken Wilber writes: “(Sri) Aurobindo’s genius was not merely that he captured the profundity of India’s extraordinary spiritual heritage. He was the first great philosopher-sage to deeply grasp the nature and meaning of the modern idea of evolution. And thus, in (Sri) Aurobindo, we have the first grand statement of an evolutionary spirituality that is an integration of the best of ancient wisdom and the brightest of modern knowledge…. His enlightenment informed his philosophy; his philosophy gave substance to his enlightenment; and that combination has been rarely equalled, in this or any time.”
One can draw parallels between Sri Aurobindo and other modern philosophers who believed in evolution, such as Hegel, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin and Jean Gebser. Sri Aurobindo has also influenced the growing disciplines of developmental and transpersonal psychology. What differentiates Sri Aurobindo from these thinkers, however, is that he did not see himself as a philosopher but maintained that his writing had a direct correlation to his spiritual experience, and he always sought a practical application of his knowledge. As Satprem, a disciple, writes: “Sri Aurobindo said that the only utility of books and philosophies was not truly to enlighten the mind but to bring it to silence so that, calmed, it could pass to the experience and receive the direct inspiration.”
After 1920, and apart from his magnum opus Savitri, Sri Aurobindo’s writing mainly finds expression in thousands of letters to disciples, guiding them in their practice of Integral Yoga, the new spiritual discipline advocated by him and the Mother.
While many contemporary scholars overlook the contribution of the Mother in the development of Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo himself acknowledged her as his spiritual equal and collaborator. She was the moving force behind the Sri Aurobindo Ashram founded in Pondicherry in 1926.
In 1969, she described her role thus: “The task of giving a concrete form to Sri Aurobindo’s vision was entrusted to the Mother. The creation of a new world, a new humanity, a new society expressing and embodying the new consciousness is the work she has undertaken…. The Ashram founded and built by the Mother was the first step towards the accomplishment of this goal. The project of Auroville is the next step, more exterior, which seeks to widen the base of this attempt to establish harmony between soul and body, spirit and nature, heaven and earth, in the collective life of mankind.”
It needs to be emphasised here that the ‘new world’ Sri Aurobindo and the Mother envisioned is not based on the creation of a new religion or sect. They worked to transform the world and effect the next stage in human evolution by bringing down to earth the power of a higher consciousness that they termed the ‘supermind’. Their spiritual vision thus encompasses all of humanity, and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville are regarded merely as experiments in collective living that can perhaps help humankind in its evolutionary march.
Sri Aurobindo’s teaching starts with the ancient Vedantic premise of Brahman or the One Self as the ultimate creator—omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—who is all that is created and is yet beyond creation. This One Self expresses itself through myriad forms, and through evolution these forms seek to recover their unity in the One Self. As Sri Aurobindo says: “All evolution is the progressive self-revelation of the One to himself.”
The Brahman is described in Vedanta as Sachchidananda, having the triune attributes of sat (absolute existence), chit-tapas (absolute consciousness and force), and ananda (absolute bliss). Both eastern and western philosophers recognise that creation essentially consists of an exterior form animated by an inner consciousness. Indian philosophy holds that it is sat which determines the exterior form, while chit-tapas determines the consciousness within the form.
Everything exhibits sat and chit-tapas as form and consciousness-force. According to ancient Indian scriptures and reaffirmed by Sri Aurobindo, creation is seen as divine lila or play, the raison d’etre of which is ananda: “From ananda,” quotes Sri Aurobindo from the Upanishads in The Life Divine, “all existences are born, by ananda they remain in being and increase, to ananda they depart.”
Sri Aurobindo posits that for evolution, there must have been an involution of the Self in matter: “Evolution of Life in matter supposes a previous involution of it there, unless we suppose it to be a new creation magically and unaccountably introduced into Nature.”
In Sri Aurobindo on Himself, he describes this process: “This One Being and Consciousness (Sachchidananda) is involved here in Matter. Evolution is the method by which it liberates itself; consciousness appears in what seems to be inconscient, and once having appeared is self-impelled to grow higher and higher and at the same time to enlarge and develop towards a greater and greater perfection.
“Life is the first step of this release of consciousness; mind is the second; but the evolution does not finish with mind, it awaits a release into something greater, a consciousness which is spiritual and supramental. The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of Supermind and Spirit as the dominant power in the conscious being. For only then will the involved Divinity in things release itself entirely and it become possible for life to manifest perfection.”
In short, Matter, Life (also called the ‘Vital’ by Sri Aurobindo), and Mind form the basis of earthly existence. This is verified by science and accepted by modern evolutionary theorists from Teilhard de Chardin to Ervin Lazslo. Sri Aurobindo further postulates that as mind is still limited in its power and knowledge and has a divisive consciousness, there is a fourth principle, ‘supermind’, endowed with divine attributes of infinite power and integral knowledge, which through the process of evolution will one day be fully manifested on earth.
In The Life Divine, which is an exposition of his metaphysical vision of evolution, Sri Aurobindo explains at length that if the Brahman is involved in matter, then its attributes of sat, chit and ananda are also involved or hidden in matter. Each level of evolution progressively reveals the nature of Brahman; that is, each evolutionary level—from matter to plants to animals to human beings and ultimately to supramental being—expresses more and more the qualities of sat, chit and ananda.
As one proceeds upwards on the evolutionary scale from matter to life to mind, material density of the form decreases and its consciousness increases.
At every significant evolutionary stage, new forms with an increasingly complex expression of consciousness are produced. So out of inanimate matter plants capable of showing response arose, out of plants, animals capable of instinctive reaction, and out of animals, human beings with a rational will arose. Sri Aurobindo explains that the third principle of ananda manifests as a secret desire towards recovering the essential unity of Sachchidananda. In the evolutionary scale, ananda expresses itself as the force of attraction in matter, hunger in the physical-vital domain, desire in the vital, and love in the mental human domain.
As, “evolution is not finished…nor the reasoning animal the supreme figure of Nature”, at the supramental level, a stage of consciousness much higher than the mind, a new form or the supramental race will be manifested on earth.
Says Sri Aurobindo: “As man emerged out of the animal, so out of man, the superman emerges.” He describes this superman as possessing divine qualities of Sachchidananda, namely immortality, absolute consciousness, omnipotence and unity.
While the evolutionary progress from mind to supermind is inevitable and does not depend on human will, human beings can consciously choose to participate in the process and hasten the birth of the new race. “The former steps in evolution,” Sri Aurobindo explains, “were taken by Nature without a conscious will in the plant and animal life, in man Nature becomes able to evolve by a conscious will in the instrument.” It is not easy however for individuals to exercise their conscious will as we are a complex amalgam of different desires arising from different parts of our being.
The fact that the human is made of various interrelated parts is accepted by almost all spiritual traditions. Perennial philosophers call it the ‘Great Chain’ or the ‘Nest of Being’ and as Ken Wilber points out in Integral Psychology, the human being comprises “various levels of existence…ranging from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit”.
Sri Aurobindo explains that in the course of evolution from matter to life to mind, human beings have acquired a physical body, a vital (emotional) body and a mental body, but that these three planes merely represent the tip of an individual’s consciousness. They form the outer nature or ego personality that governs waking consciousness. Sri Aurobindo further describes almost a dozen planes of being that lie above, below, and within this outer nature—the supraconscient, the subconscient, and the subliminal.
Core of being
A unique feature of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is the concept of an individualised soul or psychic being. An unalloyed part of the Divine, it is the innermost centre in the human being, hidden from surface consciousness by all the other planes of being that envelop it. While the concept of a soul is common to almost all spiritual traditions, what is unique to Sri Aurobindo is that he sees the psychic being as one’s true individual personality (as opposed to the ego personality) that one needs to express in order to manifest a divine life on earth.
As he explains in The Life Divine: “The soul is something of the Divine that descends into the evolution as a Divine Principle within it to support the evolution of the individual out of the Ignorance into the Light. It develops in the course of the evolution a psychic individual or soul individuality which grows from life to life, using the evolving mind, vital and body as its instruments. It is the soul that is immortal while the rest disintegrates; it passes from life to life carrying its experiences in essence and the continuity of the evolution of the individual.”
Through conscious spiritual discipline or successive reincarnations, the psychic being is thought to progressively manifest itself by bringing the outer nature under its control. This process of discovering and allowing the psychic being to integrate and govern different planes of one’s being is termed ‘psychic transformation’. It is the first step to an individual’s conscious participation in evolutionary process.
To enable individuals to consciously participate in evolution, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother formulated a spiritual discipline—Integral Yoga. ‘Yoga’ connotes union with the Divine. And, “Integral Yoga is so called because it aims at a harmonised totality of spiritual realisation and experience. Its aim is integral experience of the divine reality…. Its method is an integral opening of the whole consciousness, mind, heart, life, will, body to that reality, to the divine existence, consciousness, beatitude to its being and its integral transformation of the whole nature,” says Sri Aurobindo.
He spells out three steps of progressive self-achievement that lead to integral transformation. The first is psychic transformation where the individual acts from guidance of the psychic being rather than the ego. The next step, often concurrent with the first, is to become aware of the universal self. The third is supramental transformation in which the power of the supermind acts upon the individual and transforms him into a supramental being.
Comparing his path to other spiritual disciplines, Sri Aurobindo says: “In the past, it (realisation of the Spirit) has been attempted by a drawing away from the world and a disappearance into the height of the Self or Spirit. He teaches that a descent of the higher principle is possible which will not merely release the spiritual Self out of the world, but release it in the world…and make it possible for the human being to find himself dynamically as well as inwardly and grow out of his still animal humanity into a diviner race. The psychological discipline of Yoga can be used to that end by opening all parts of the being to a conversion or transformation through the descent and working of the higher still concealed supramental principle.”
In short, Integral Yoga seeks not a renunciation of life and liberation from the world but a transformation of life and the world, not a rejection of egoistic parts of one being but their transformation and integration into a divine nature. “This, however,” Sri Aurobindo warns, “cannot be done at once or in a short time or by any rapid or miraculous transformation…. For there are several ranges of consciousness between the ordinary human mind and the supramental truth-consciousness…(that) have to be opened up and their power brought down into the mind, life and body.”
To help in this transformation, Sri Aurobindo emphasises the need for total rejection of one’s egoistic desires and a complete surrender to the divine supramental force. Surrender is important for it is believed that the individual with his limited consciousness cannot achieve supramental consciousness on her own. It is only the divine power from the supramental plane that by its descent into an individual can bring about supramental transformation. Besides, in Sri Aurobindo’s worldview, the individual has limited power while the supermind has infinite power. And thus, the easiest way for the individual to progress and transform is to surrender to the working of the supermind. Disciples of Sri Aurobindo see the Mother as a personification of the divine force to whom they make their surrender, and they refer to the Mother’s force as the supramental force acting in the world. This is in keeping with the tradition of worshipping the feminine in India as shakti, the creative, dynamic principle of the universe.
At the same time, Integral Yoga gives immense freedom to the individual to pursue his inner self-development according to his or her nature. This stems from the belief that each human being embodies a true individual nature in his psychic that needs to be expressed. The Mother once said that the best way to collaborate in the supramental transformation was “to realise one’s being under no matter what form, by no matter what road…Each individual carries in himself a truth and it is with this truth that he must unite himself…and in this way the road he follows to join and realise this truth becomes also the road which will bring him nearest possible to the transformation”.
As Integral Yoga seeks a spiritual transformation of the earth, utmost importance is paid to one’s dealing with the material world. This takes many forms: from physical perfection through exercise, consciously caring for material things one uses, to cultivating an appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. For Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, matter, despite being inert, embodies divine consciousness and thus commands respect. By engaging with the material world consciously, one could effect a change in matter. As the Mother explained in The Mother’s Agenda: “Work, even manual work, is something indispensable for the inner discovery. If one does not work, if one does not put his consciousness into matter, the latter will never develop…. To establish order around oneself helps to bring order within oneself.”
Similarly, the body, the material basis of existence, is regarded as an instrument of the Divine to be perfected through physical discipline so that it can embody a higher consciousness. The cultivation of beauty in one’s surroundings stems from the fact that “in the physical world, of all things it is beauty that best expresses the Divine…. Beauty interprets, expresses, manifests the Eternal.”
A collective yoga
Integral Yoga does not stop at individual realisation. As the Mother says: “For this transformation to succeed, all human beings—even all living beings as well as their material environment—must be transformed…. Not only an individual or a group of individuals, or even all individuals, but life…has to be transformed. Without such a transformation we shall continue having the same misery, the same calamities and the same atrocities in the world. A few individuals will escape from it by their psychic development, but the general mass will remain in the same state of misery.”
It is believed that each individual who takes up the yoga represents a certain universal difficulty, and if transformation is achieved in one, then it affects the whole of humanity. Corollary to this is the fact that the transformation cannot be carried out by a single individual for he represents only one type of personality. To achieve complete transformation of human nature, all personality-types need to be represented in this collective yoga. Says the Mother: “By the very nature of things, it (the supramental transformation) is a collective ideal that calls for a collective effort so that it may be realised in terms of an integral human perfection.”
This collective aspect of Integral Yoga is different from the modern enchantment with community living. A collective effort for transformation does not imply that practitioners have to do things together in their daily life. Elaborating on the true community, the Mother says: “One of the most common types of human collectivity (is) to group together…around a common ideal…but in an artificial way…. A true community can be based only on the inner realisation of each of its members.”
Complementary to collective yoga is Sri Aurobindo’s ideal for human unity that stems from the fact that underlying all appearances, “there is a secret spirit, a divine reality, in which we are all one”. If one were to start from this spiritual premise of unity, then there would be “free room for the realisation of the highest human dreams, for the perfectibility of the race, a perfect society, a higher upward evolution of the human soul and human nature”. Sri Aurobindo holds that a mere intellectual belief in human unity is doomed to failure for it can only be achieved by progressive spiritual realisation of universal oneness. Unity does not mean a homogenisation or outward uniformity, but rather it celebrates the essential diversity of all creation. This is one of the most precious legacies of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.
Bindu Mohanty has been living in Auroville since 1994. A writer and teacher, she has an abiding interest in Indic studies and in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.
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