Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1

The ordinary human mind has a propensity for exaggerating one side of the Truth and ignoring the other.  Those who are benevolent by nature tend to prescribe compassion to solve every problem while those who are endowed with dynamism advocate taking action in every instance.  Likewise, some theorize aiding the businessmen and letting the poor uplift themselves while others suggest helping the poor and letting the businessmen take care of themselves.   One of the pleasures of reading Sri Aurobindo’s works is that such contradictions do not exist because he traces every contradiction to its Divine origin and reconciles it as part of a larger Truth.   He explicates how every principle has it’s play in a certain context but if we over-generalize , then it loses its value.  This article outlines some oppositions resolved by Sri Aurobindo.

chittim-achittim chinavad vi vidvān pŗşhţeva vīta vŗjinā cha martān (- Rişhi Vāmadeva in  Rig Veda 4.2.11)

Let the knower discriminate the Knowledge and the Ignorance, the straight open levels and the crooked that shut in mortals.

The Rig Veda in the above verse says that the phenomenal world is crooked because every Truth gets distorted over here.   The chief element causing this distortion is the human mind which misleads us by building a fractional representation of the world, cutting the whole into partial Truths, and then (mis)using it’s reasoning faculty to argue from only one side of the Truth.  It is  only the Enlightened One who, by virtue of attaining the Overmind and more, gains the ability to see the Truth behind distortions.  (See How the mind changes with Yoga)

Anticrepuscular rays by carolune via flickr. Click image for source.

We will cover five contradictions in this article.   There are a few more which will be covered in the second part.

  1. Ethical Man vs Aesthetic Man
  2. The Subject-Object Dichotomy
  3. Individualism vs Communism
  4. Materialism vs Ascetism
  5. Pleasure and Pain

The Ethical Man vs The Aesthetic Man

One of the frequent conflicts we see in society is between the ethical and the aesthetic temperament.  The ethical man values good character in life whereas the aesthetic man seeks beauty in life.   The Divine instinct behind ethics is the principle of Tapas (inward concentration of consciousness) whereas the Divine instinct behind aesthetics is the principle of Ananda (Delight) in life.  In the perfected spiritual man, both tendencies will balance each other and reach their consummation.  However, in the partial man, psychological and social problems occur when either of these conflicting tendencies are exaggerated; the ethical man may degenerate into the moralist, puritan and fanatic whereas the aesthetic man may degenerate into the vulgar and obscene individual.

The conflict arises from that sort of triangular disposition of the higher or more subtle mentality which we have already had occasion to indicate. There is in our mentality a side of will, conduct, character which creates the ethical man; there is another side of sensibility to the beautiful, – understanding beauty in no narrow or hyperartistic sense, – which creates the artistic and aesthetic man. Therefore there can be such a thing as a predominantly or even exclusively ethical culture; there can be too, evidently, a predominantly or even exclusively aesthetic culture. There are at once created two conflicting ideals which must naturally stand opposed and look askance at each other with a mutual distrust or even reprobation. The aesthetic man tends to be impatient of the ethical rule; he feels it to be a barrier to his aesthetic freedom and an oppression on the play of his artistic sense and his artistic faculty; he is naturally hedonistic, – for beauty and delight are inseparable powers, – and the ethical rule tramples on pleasure, even very often on quite innocent pleasures, and tries to put a strait waistcoat on the human impulse to delight….The ethical man repays this natural repulsion with interest. He tends to distrust art and the aesthetic sense as some- thing lax and emollient, something in its nature undisciplined and by its attractive appeals to the passions and emotions destructive of a high and strict self-control. He sees that it is hedonistic and he finds that the hedonistic impulse is non-moral and often immoral. It is difficult for him to see how the indulgence of the aesthetic impulse beyond a very narrow and carefully guarded limit can be combined with a strict ethical life. He evolves the puritan who objects to pleasure on principle; not only in his extremes – and a predominant impulse tends to become absorbing and leads towards extremes – but in the core of his temperament he remains fundamentally the puritan. The misunderstanding between these two sides of our nature is an inevitable circumstance of our human growth which must try them to their fullest separate possibilities and experiment in extremes in order that it may understand the whole range of its capacities.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: Aesthetic and Ethical Culture

Sri Aurobindo points out that neither of these predilections leads to the complete truth.  The perfected man has to be able to combine both these tendencies into a holistic disposition.   The ethical man must begin to dissolve the rigid mind-vital linkage which causes him to issue severe judgements while the aesthetic man must practice austerity in order to exalt the vital with the touch of the psychic being.

We can combine them; we can enlarge the sense of ethics by the sense of beauty and delight and introduce into it to correct its tendency of hardness and austerity the element of gentleness, love, amenity, the hedonistic side of morals; we can steady, guide and strengthen the delight of life (i.e. aesthetic side) by the introduction of the necessary will and austerity and self-discipline which will give it endurance and purity. These two powers of our psychological being, which represent in us the essential principle of energy and the essential principle of delight,—the Indian terms are more profound and expressive, Tapas and Ananda,—can be thus helped by each other, the one to a richer, the other to a greater self-expression. 

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: Aesthetic and Ethical Culture

This aspect has been covered in an earlier post Ethical Logical and Aesthetic Mind

The Subject-Object dichotomy

The process of human perception creates a dichotomy between the subject and the object or, in the words of Vedanta, between the triple of the Knower, the Known and the Knowledge  (See also: Subject-Object problem of philosophy )  Sri Aurobindo reconciles this subject-object dichotomy based on the hidden unity of Consciousness which lies latent behind the Nescience.   The Divine, in its desire to express itself, objectified and created the Universe much as a poet creates a poem and views that  poem as separate from himself.   The Divine Consciousness separating and fragmenting itself into various gradations of consciousness has given rise to this phenomenal differentiation between the subject and the object.  How can we recover the unity?  It occurs when, through the process of Yoga, we develop the power of Intuition which re-awakens the latent connection between the subject-consciousness and the object-consciousness.

Intuition is a power of consciousness nearer and more intimate to the original knowledge by identity; for it is always something that leaps out direct from a concealed identity. It is when the consciousness of the subject meets with the consciousness in the object, penetrates it and sees, feels or vibrates with the truth of what it contacts, that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting; or when the consciousness, even without any such meeting, looks into itself and feels directly and intimately the truth or the truths that are there or so contacts the hidden forces behind appearances, then also there is the outbreak of an intuitive light; or, again, when the consciousness meets the Supreme Reality or the spiritual reality of things and beings and has a contactual union with it, then the spark, the flash or the blaze of intimate truth-perception is lit in its depths.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – II: The Ascent towards Supermind

In his book Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo traces the power of separation induced in the Mind to the original power of Apprehension which originates on the plane of Vijnana or Supermind.  The Supramental Truth-consciousness divides into two powers, Apprehension and Comprehension, and it is the secondary power of Apprehension which creates the distinction between the Knower, the Known and Knowledge.

But what then is the origin of mentality and the organisation of this lower consciousness in the triple terms of Mind, Life and Matter which is our view of the universe? For since all things that exist must proceed from the action of the allefficient Supermind, from its operation in the three original terms of Existence, Conscious-Force and Bliss, there must be some faculty of the creative Truth-Consciousness which so operates as to cast them into these new terms, into this inferior trio of mentality, vitality and physical substance. This faculty we find in a secondary power of the creative knowledge, its power of a projecting, confronting and apprehending consciousness in which knowledge centralises itself and stands back from its works to observe them.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Supreme Truth-Consciousness

For more on this topic, see a previous post Epistemology of Perception

Individualism vs Communism

In the organization of society, we veer towards two extreme forms of organization.  One is communism where the individual is forcibly and mechanically subjugated to the needs of the State and other is individualism (e.g. capitalism) where individual enterprise is regarded as more important than care for the poor and the downtrodden.

For the vice of individualism is that in insisting upon the free development and self-expression of the life and the mind or the life-soul in the individual, it tends to exaggerate the egoism of the mental and vital being and prevent the recognition of unity with others on which alone a complete self-development and a harmless freedom can be founded. Collectivism at least insists upon that unity by entirely subordinating the life of the isolated ego to the life of the greater group-ego, and its office may be thus to stamp upon the mentality and life-habits of the individual the necessity of unifying his life with the life of others.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Curve of the Rational Age

Sri Aurobindo points out that there is a Truth behind both these principles which gets distorted in practice. Society is necessary for the practice and perfection of the soul as per the rule “I am my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) while individual freedom is necessary from an evolutionary perspective if Man must fulfill himself , however haphazardly, and grow into Divinity.  The reconciliation of these two extremes then lies in the development of a spiritual society which bases itself on the recognition that man is in his essence Spirit.   Such an association, Sri Aurobindo says, must be founded on the soul’s brotherhood and death of egoism rather than the chauvinistic solidarities advocated under communism.

The second psychic truth the individual has to grasp is this, that he is not only himself, but is in solidarity with all of his kind,—let us leave aside for the moment that which seems to be not of his kind. That which we are has expressed itself through the individual, but also through the universality, and though each has to fulfil itself in its own way, neither can succeed independently of the other. The society has no right to crush or efface the individual for its own better development or self-satisfaction; the individual, so long at least as he chooses to live in the world, has no right to disregard for the sake of his own solitary satisfaction and development his fellow-beings and to live at war with them or seek a selfishly isolated good. And when we say, no right, it is from no social, moral or religious standpoint, but from the most positive and simply with a view to the law of existence itself. For neither the society nor the individual can so develop to their fulfilment. Every time the society crushes or effaces the individual, it is inflicting a wound on itself and depriving its own life of priceless sources of stimulation and growth. The individual too cannot flourish by himself; for the universal, the unity and collectivity of his fellow-beings, is his present source and stock; it is the thing whose possibilities he individually expresses, even when he transcends its immediate level, and of which in his phenomenal being he is one result.  Its depression strikes eventually at his own sources of life, by its increasing he also increases. This is what a true subjectivism teaches us,—first, that we are a higher self than our ego or our members, secondly, that we are in our life and being not only ourselves but all others; for there is a secret solidarity which our egoism may kick at and strive against, but from which we cannot escape.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: True and False Subjectivism

Materialism vs Ascetism

The materialist denies the Spirit by asserting that only that which is visible to the physical senses is true.   He asserts that only matter and energy exist and beyond that nothing can be true because it cannot be verified.   He is unwilling to admit that anything may exist beyond the immediate sensory interpretation and the fumblings of the rational mind.  Consequently, the age where Science rules also becomes the age where all mystic experiences is denied.

Modern Science, obsessed with the greatness of its physical discoveries and the idea of the sole existence of Matter, has long attempted to base upon physical data even its study of Soul and Mind and of those workings of Nature in man and animal in which a knowledge of psychology is as important as any of the physical sciences. Its very psychology founded itself upon physiology and the scrutiny of the brain and nervous system.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Cycle of Society

The ascetic takes his stand on the other extreme from the materialist.   He says God alone is true and the phenomenal world is an illusion from which we must escape as quickly as possible.   The ascetic mentality commences in the temporary need to withdraw from the exigencies of life to concentrate within, but a violent recoil from the hardships of life followed by a feeling that earthly life will always be imperfect can lead to the denial of Matter.  Alternately, a purely static realization of the Divine and a deep absorption into Nirvana  after which one becomes incapable or unwilling to recover the reality of Matter again can also cause one to declare the phenomenal world is an illusion.

Sri Aurobindo says both these views are extreme and can be reconciled.   He states, based on his own spiritual experience, that the whole Creation is a self-extension of the Divine in Time and Space.  Matter and Spirit are two poles of Creation, both of which are real, and it is possible to attain a Divine Life here on Earth through conscious evolution.  This is the goal of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga.

Pleasure vs Pain

It is self-limitation of consciousness which has effected the  triple sensations of pleasure and pain experienced in the phenomenal world.   Our ego identification constricts us to a physical body, assigns us an individual memory which retains the impressions of past contacts, and these impressions are then utilized to create the illusion of pleasure and pain.   Behind these sensations, there exists the original sensation of Bliss or Delight which eternally courses through the Universe.  Man has been cut off from that underlying delight because of the division within his consciousness, and consequent absorption of his mind and senses into the superficial phenomenal world.

…This is the fall of man typified in the poetic parable of the Hebrew Genesis. That fall is his deviation from the full and pure acceptance of God and himself, or rather of God in himself, into a dividing consciousness which brings with it all the train of the dualities, life and death, good and evil, joy and pain, completeness and want, the fruit of a divided being. This is the fruit which Adam and Eve, Purusha and Prakriti, the soul tempted by Nature, have eaten.  The redemption comes by the recovery of the universal in the individual and of the spiritual term in the physical consciousness.  Then alone the soul in Nature can be allowed to partake of the fruit of the tree of life and be as the Divine and live for ever. For then only can the purpose of its descent into material consciousness be accomplished, when the knowledge of good and evil, joy and suffering, life and death has been accomplished through the recovery by the human soul of a higher knowledge which reconciles and identifies these opposites in the universal and transforms their divisions into the image of the divine Unity.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Ego and the Dualities

From the spiritual perspective, pain is a welcome instrument of Nature and a necessary prod to our inner soul to awaken and free itself from its self-imposed limitations.  Once we expand in consciousness, the emotional residues of the past are cleansed, the soul no longer identifies solely with the physical body but centers itself in the higher subtle body which opens contact to the  the greater and higher planes of the Universe.  As a result of this transformation, the senses bathe in the inner fire of the soul and every new sense contact becomes an occasion for delight.

In the egoistic human being, the mental person emergent out of the dim shell of matter, delight of existence is neutral, semilatent, still in the shadow of the subconscious, hardly more than a concealed soil of plenty covered by desire with a luxuriant growth of poisonous weeds and hardly less poisonous flowers, the pains and pleasures of our egoistic existence. When the divine conscious-force working secretly in us has devoured these growths of desire, when in the image of the Rig Veda the fire of God has burnt up the shoots of earth, that which is concealed at the roots of these pains and pleasures, their cause and secret being, the sap of delight in them, will emerge in new forms not of desire, but of self-existent satisfaction which will replace mortal pleasure by the Immortal’s ecstasy. And this transformation is possible because these growths of sensation and emotion are in their essential being, the pains no less than the pleasures, that delight of existence which they seek but fail to reveal,—fail because of division, ignorance of self and egoism.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: Delight of Existence: The Problem

To be Continued in part 2 ( Update : see the post here)

These wide divine extremes, these inverse powers
Are the right and left side of the body of God;
Existence balanced twixt two mighty arms
Confronts the mind with unsolved abysms of Thought.
Darkness below, a fathomless Light above,

In Light are joined, but sundered by severing Mind
Stand face to face, opposite, inseparable,
Two contraries needed for his great World-task,
Two poles whose currents wake the immense World-Force.

Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – II: The Dream Twilight of the Earthly Real

9 thoughts on “Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1

  1. Pingback: Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2 « Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  2. Arup Basu

    Dear Sandeep,

    It’s a brilliant piece of analysis. As I said in an earlier mail, to which I have not yet received a reply, that I would be grateful if you would please let me have your e-mail id so that I could correspond with you re: an English quarterly, Sraddha, that I edit for Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Calcutta, the birthplace of Ther Master. Would very much appreciate an early reply. Warm regards.
    Sincerely,
    Arup

    Reply
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