Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2

The ordinary human mind has a propensity for exaggerating one side of the Truth and ignoring the other.  One of the pleasures of reading Sri Aurobindo’s works is that such contradictions do not exist because he resolves every contradiction by tracing it to its Divine origin and reconciling 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.  In the previous post, Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1, we covered five oppositions which were reconciled by Sri Aurobindo into a larger Truth.  This article presents a few more additions: Self-esteem versus Humility, Good versus Evil, Various formulations of the Divine, Nature versus Nurture, Evolution versus Creationism.

There all the truths unite in a single Truth,
And all ideas rejoin Reality.
There knowing herself by her own termless self,
Wisdom supernal, wordless, absolute
Sat uncompanioned in the eternal Calm,
All-seeing, motionless, sovereign and alone.
There knowledge needs not words to embody Idea;
Idea, seeking a house in boundlessness,
Weary of its homeless immortality,
Asks not in thought’s carved brilliant cell to rest
Whose single window’s clipped outlook on things
Sees only a little arc of God’s vast sky.

Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – I: The Yoga of the King: The Yoga of the Soul’s Release

Anticrepuscular rays by electro8 via Flickr. Click image for source

Self-esteem versus Humility

Faced with a rapidly globalizing and hyper-competitive world, people impulsively seek security by identifying with some social aggregrate (family, club, corporation) coupled with the inculcating of pride in their personal accomplishments.  This nagging feeling of insecurity is the basis for the self-esteem movement which emphasizes self-worth as a basic need for living a well-adjusted and happy life in society. On the other hand, traditional spirituality considers any affirmation of the ego as an abomination.  How to reconcile these conflicting needs of the soul which wishes to live in society? Sri Aurobindo points out that the development of the ego (and by that, we mean the soul’s absorption and sole identification with the physical body) is a necessary, albeit transient, development which guards the individual and allows the growth of the personality without being smothered by the decrees of society:

…the great evolutionary periods of humanity have taken place in communities where the individual became active, mentally, vitally or spiritually alive. For this reason Nature invented the ego that the individual might disengage himself from the inconscience or subconscience of the mass and become an independent living mind, life-power, soul, spirit, co-ordinating himself with the world around him but not drowned in it and separately inexistent and ineffective. For the individual is indeed part of the cosmic being, but he is also something more, he is a soul that has descended from the Transcendence. This he cannot manifest at once, because he is too near to the cosmic Inconscience, not near enough to the original Superconscience; he has to find himself as the mental and vital ego before he can find himself as the soul or spirit.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – II: The Progress to Knowledge – God, Man and Nature

In the following passage, the Mother Mirra Alfassa elucidates on the various stages in Man’s earthly evolution, from the undistinguished clannish man who lives as part of some collective to the individual egoistic man and then to the man who is consecrated to the Divine.

…the first state of your being is a state of an almost total mixture with all things from outside, and that there is almost no individualisation, that is, specialisation which makes you a different being. You are moved – a kind of form which is your physical being is moved – by all the common universal forces, vital forces or mental forces, which go through your form and put it in motion.  So that is the universal being.

And all that you have wrested from this general semi-consciousness, and have crystallised into a more or less independent being, conscious of itself and having its own qualities, all this is your individual being. And this individual being is full of all the movements of obscurity, unconsciousness, and of the limitations of ordinary life, and that’s… and that’s what you must gradually open to the divine influence and bring to the consciousness and understanding of things. That’s what Sri Aurobindo says.

In fact, the first victory is to create an individuality. And then later, the second victory is to give this individuality to the Divine. And the third victory is that the Divine changes your individuality into a divine being.

There are three stages: the first is to become an individual; the second is to consecrate the individual, that he may surrender entirely to the Divine and be identified with Him; and the third is that the Divine takes possession of this individual and changes him into a being in His own image, that is, he too becomes divine.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 14 December 1955

Good versus Evil

In the Life Divine, the contradiction of good and evil is reconciled in the chapter on The Life Divine – I: The Origin and Remedy of Falsehood, Error, Wrong and Evil.  We will briefly summarize the arguments here.

At the outset, we have to examine whether evil exists in Creation.  There is nothing inherently evil in the Transcendent Divine but in the Universe, there do exist malevolent beings in various occult worlds, as can be adduced from the spiritual experience of various sages and even people afflicted by psychiatric disorders.  Coming to the level of earthly life, one observes no evil intent in organisms such as plants and animals; animals are endowed with the instinct of survival and kill others only when necessary, except for cases when they turn violent after being corrupted under the influence of men.

Given all the above, how does the notion of evil emerge in Man?  Evil, Sri Aurobindo says, is engendered in man’s vital instincts – in the sensations of pain and pleasure.  When these sensations are submitted to the mind, it arrives at some capricious ethical judgement which is contingent on the disposition of the individual personality – a personality which is the cumulative outgrowth of cultural, genetic and past-birth influences.  Such judgements tend to be invariably subjective and vary across the masses.  In the collective life of society, these ethical judgements are eventually aggregrated and elevated to collective notions of morality which serve to cement public opinion and create conflicts between men.  What ultimate purpose is served by the instilling of such erroneous mind-sense linkages within Man?  They have been instilled within us to awaken the soul and to goad us towards greater Divine perfection.  If we look at this problem from the holistic perspective, there are two primary reasons why Man engages in evil acts: lack of knowledge and egoism.  Our lack of knowledge originates in the half-evolved human mind which is an evolutionary intermediary between the animal mind endowed with impeccable instincts and the spiritualized mind empowered with lightning intuition.   By itself, lack of knowledge would not give rise to evil actions if the soul within had been propelled by the aspiration to learn rapidly, but in the collective vital life of society any such aspiration is usually submerged by lesser aspirations.  As a result, lack of knowledge gets combined with the second factor – egoism – creating a potent combination which foments errors of self-affirmation and self-justification that gradually lead to the degradation of the soul in Man.  These errors are only corrected when the psychic being within Man is awakened and begins to lead evolution.

Thus, Sri Aurobindo concludes that Evil is a phenomenal and evolutionary mechanism in the Universe and not an absolute truth.  It exists for the purpose of goading human beings to awaken to their spiritual journey.  The Divine who created the Universe is not only extra-cosmic but also immanent in Creation.  The Universe was created because the Divine wishes to discover itself through evolution and Becoming.

For more on this topic, refer to the Sri Aurobindo’s essays Letters on Himself and the Ashram: The Riddle of This World and the Essays in Philosophy and Yoga: The Principle of Evil

Differing formulations of the Divine

Different schools of Indian philosophy such as Vishishtadvaita , Dvaitadvaita, Dvaita , Shuddhadvaita sprung in the past bearing dissimilar formulations of the nature of the Divine Being.  Sri Aurobindo points out the Divine can be realized in multitudinous ways, and those who experience only a single aspect of the greater Reality are bound to come up with incomplete theories.   The Supramental or Vijnana world which supports Creation assumes three poises – unity(comprehending), unity in multiplicity (apprehending) and multiplicity(projecting).   When the purified mind catches a reflection of the first poise (unity), one assumes that there is no individuality and concludes “Only God exists and no individuals exist” .  When the spiritualized mind attains the second poise (unity in multiplicity), one states “All beings are One but there is also multiplicity” as adduced by Vishishtadvaita.  Those who catch a reflection of the third poise (multiplicity) will state “All beings are separate from the Divine but supported by it” as exemplified by Dvaita.   One can also realize the Cosmic Divine in its Static aspect which is called Nirvana, its Dynamic aspect which is called Cosmic Consciousness, and as the Transcendent Divine which is the Supreme Realization which encompasses all other realizations.   All these realizations are necessary to grok the multi-faceted nature of the Divine Reality.

It is indeed only when our human mentality lays an exclusive emphasis on one side of spiritual experience, affirms that to be the sole eternal truth and states it in the terms of our all-dividing mental logic that the necessity for mutually destructive schools of philosophy arises. Thus, emphasising the sole truth of the unitarian consciousness, we observe the play of the divine unity, erroneously rendered by our mentality into the terms of real difference, but, not satisfied with correcting this error of the mind by the truth of a higher principle, we assert that the play itself is an illusion. Or, emphasising the play of the One in the Many, we declare a qualified unity and regard the individual soul as a soul-form of the Supreme, but would assert the eternity of this qualified existence and deny altogether the experience of a pure consciousness in an unqualified oneness. Or, again, emphasising the play of difference, we assert that the Supreme and the human soul are eternally different and reject the validity of an experience which exceeds and seems to abolish that difference.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Triple Status of Supermind

Nature versus Nurture

What can we glean from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on the Nature versus Nurture debate?  We are given the understanding that nature and nurture can be reconciled in the greater spiritual truth, that there is an soul within Man evolving towards Divinity.  This soul persists across incarnations, puts forth its own distinct personality in every life and is also influenced by the genetic makeup of the parents as well as by the prevailing Zeitgeist.

Man is a soul evolving in Time through various forms across different races, countries and parents.   We are drawn to certain parents at birth based on the level of our consciousness.  Highly evolved souls are able to form their own mental and vital sheaths in the occult worlds and make a judicious choice of parents, while those who are not completely conscious are subjected to the vagaries of destiny at rebirth.  By virtue of being born in a certain family, one inherits certain hereditary traits as well as the subconscious atavisms of one’s parents.  (refer to Subconscient inherited from parents).  During the lifetime, the soul puts out an inchoate combination of a mental, a vital and a physical Purusha which governs the personality and determines our subjective reactions and choices.   It is due to the interaction between these Purushas that even little children seem to have individual personalities and are not exactly tabula rasa as is naively expected.  (refer to All thoughts come from outside).

Darwinian Evolution vs Divine Creation

Darwin’s theory of evolution proposes that all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor, that there is individual variation within every species, and that evolution is mediated by the process of natural selection due to which, in due course of time, certain traits become established in the species due to ‘survival of the fittest’.

During Darwin’s time, the field of genetics was in a nascent stage, with his contemporary Gregor Mendel, now known as the father of modern genetics, just initiating cross-breeding experiments on pea plants.  The study of genetic traits has now substantially expanded into the development of the booming field of genetics.    Today, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been integrated with Mendelian genetics to form what is called Neo-Darwinism or the evolutionary synthesis.  Evolutionary biology now recognizes that aside from natural selection, other evolutionary mechanisms such as adaptation, genetic drift, gene flow and speciation are also involved in evolution; it differentiates between microevolution and macroevolution.[1]  The theory of evolution is expanding to encompass evolution of minerals as well.  Scientists at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory have observed that minerals have also become more complex with time. They have found that the mineral kingdom co-evolved with life, and that up to two thirds of the more than 4,000 known types of minerals on Earth can be directly or indirectly linked to biological activity.  Today there are about 4,400 mineral species but 4 billion years ago, there were only a dozen minerals on Earth.[2]

Neo-Darwinism has been challenged by the movement known as Intelligent Design(ID), whose primary contention is that Darwin’s theory does not explain the ‘irreducible complexity’ seen in Nature.  ID posits the existence of an extra-cosmic entity which must have created the world, as adduced by the latent intelligence seen in various instinctive mechanisms found in Nature.  It must also be mentioned that ID is derived from and sustained by an earlier movement known as Creationism, which sought to invalidate Darwinian evolution by proposing that the world was created as described in the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

Now we will briefly outline, based on the works of Sri Aurobindo, what we perceive to be the synthesis between scientism and literalism – between Neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design.  The Universe can be seen as a Manifestation of the Divine, a conscious Being evolving itself through self-extension in Time and Space for the purpose of self-discovery and joy.  The Upanishad gives us the illustrative analogy of a spider spinning a web out of itself.  Sri Aurobindo identified a double movement of involution and evolution in which Spirit first involves itself through self-absorption in the Inconscience to create Matter and then Matter evolves the latent Spirit within through the mechanisms of Life-principle(Vitality), Mind-principle and so on The Life Divine – II: The Order of the Worlds, The Life Divine – I: Death, Desire and Incapacity .   The Divine has become the Universe; it has split itself into souls in order to take part in self-finding.  It clothes itself in new forms (minerals, plants, animals and man) that are developed in successive stages to represent new forces breaking out of primordial Inconscience.  In a nutshell, we can say that the Universe was created by a “Differentiation of Consciousness” and in its upward evolutionary movement, it tries to recover the lost unity through an “Integration of Consciousness”. Therefore, it can be said that the Universe is involved in a giant “Calculus of Yoga” course.

Sri Aurobindo contextualizes Darwin’s trope ‘survival of fittest’ while discussing the development of  the Life principle (i.e. vitality).  Sri Aurobindo identified three stages of existence: the dumb will of energy, the urge to possess, the urge to love.  These three stages correspond to the three defects perceived in individualized evolving life-forms: death, desire and incapacity.   The dumb will of energy is observed in the first stages of life, where the subconscient will in primitive life-forms is driven by purely mechanical laws.  The second stage is exemplified by higher life forms which are driven by the instinct to live, and this necessarily induces in them the principle of struggle as well as adaptation to the environment.  The third stage is discerned in collective packs of animals which exhibit primal form of love and band together to survive.   The preservation of individuality is moderated with the necessity and desire for interchange and fusion with other individuals.   These three principles are also inherited and visible in the early stages of human life.  As Sri Aurobindo points out, it is struggle for vital development in evolution which was expressed in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The phenomenon of hunger and desire involves a struggle towards a status of satisfaction and security, since desire is only the stimulus by which Life tempts its own positive being to rise out of the negation of unfulfilled hunger towards the full possession of the delight of existence. The phenomenon of limited capacity involves a struggle towards expansion, mastery and possession, the possession of the self and the conquest of the environment, since limitation and defect are only the negation by which Life tempts its own positive being to seek for the perfection of which it is eternally capable.The struggle for life is not only a struggle to survive, it is also a struggle for possession and perfection, since only by taking hold of the environment whether more or less, whether by self-adaptation to it or by adapting it to oneself either by accepting and conciliating it or by conquering and changing it, can survival be secured, and equally is it true that only a greater and greater perfection can assure a continuous permanence, a lasting survival. It is this truth that Darwinism sought to express in the formula of the survival of the fittest.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Ascent of Life

Intelligent Design raises valid questions about abiogenesis (i.e. how life arises out from inorganic matter) and speciation (i.e. how do new species arise) but is unable to satisfactorily answer them with a suitable teleology, other than to posit the existence of  an extra-cosmic entity which must be managing the Universe.  On the other hand, Neo-Darwinism only examines the superficial evolution of forms, and remains unaware of the greater aeonic evolution of souls as they are reborn in progressively more complex forms, (plant, animal and human) as determined by the evolution of soul consciousness.

We present the synthesis of the above ideas as discovered in the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.  Speciation is explained by the fact that consciousness precedes form in evolution Questions and Answers (1957 – 1958): 4 December 1957.  There exists what is denoted as the ‘generic prototype’ behind every species, which is like a mold; it creates the general form that every member of the species will manifest.  What evolutionary biologists describe as sudden variation or mutation of the species and whose cause or genesis they are at a loss to trace, is precisely due to an occult change in the consciousness and will of this prototype [3].  Behind the physical world, there exist gradations of occult worlds in which the subtle sheaths which correspond the physical body seen on earth are first prepared and embodied by the reincarnating soul.

From karana to sukshma, from sukshma to sthula, and back again, that is the formula. Once manifested in matter the world proceeds by laws which do not change, from age to age, by a regular succession, until it is all withdrawn back again into the source from which it came. The material goes back into the psychical and the psychical is involved in its cause or seed. It is again put out when the period of expansion recurs and runs its course on similar lines but with different details till the period of contraction is due.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays in Philosophy and Yoga: Yoga and Human Evolution

We end this article with a quote which illustrates that Sri Aurobindo may have anticipated that the field of genetics would one day discover the evolutionary mechanism of artificial mutation.

Modern man has not yet succeeded in discovering or using the laws of Life, but there is no reason to suppose that he will not one day make that discovery also. The day must inevitably come when he will be able even to originate no less than to modify freely both plant life and animal life in matter and govern them for his purposes (emphasis added) as he now originates mechanisms of material force and modifies and governs its currents, combinations and separate workings so as to abridge distance, to invade the air, to economise the expenditure of his own life energies or to serve a hundred other purposes of human construction, destruction or development.

Sri Aurobindo, Isha Upanishad: Chapter V: The Soul, Causality and Law of Nature.

Upanishad analogy of Cosmic Creation being similar to a spider spinning the web(Image by photofarmer via Flickr Creative Commons. Click for source)


We have briefly illustrated ten points of contention that were reconciled in Sri Aurobindo’s thought.

  1. Ethical Man versus Aesthetic Man
  2. The Subject-Object Dichotomy
  3. Individualism versus Communism
  4. Materialism versus Ascetism
  5. Pleasure versus Pain
  6. Self-esteem versus Humility
  7. Good versus Evil
  8. Various formulations of the Divine
  9. Nature versus Nurture
  10. Evolution versus Creationism.

In this meeting of the Eternal’s mingling masques,
This tangle-dance of passionate contraries
Locking like lovers in a forbidden embrace
The quarrel of their lost identity,
Through this wrestle and wrangle of the extremes of Power
Earth’s million roads struggled towards deity.

Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – II: The Debate of Love and Death


  1. Laurence Moran.  Talk Origins Archive. Accessed Jan 23, 2010.
  2. Robert M. Hazen, Dominic Papineau, Wouter Bleeker, Robert T. Downs, John M. Ferry, Timothy J. McCoy, Dimitri Sverjensky and Hexiong Yang. Mineral evolution.  American Mineralogist, 2008.
  3. Nolini Kant Gupta. Collected Works vol 3, p 178.

7 thoughts on “Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2

  1. Pingback: Consciousness precedes form in evolution « Sri Aurobindian Ontology

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  3. Sandeep Post author

    Apropos the last section above “Darwinian Evolution vs Divine Creation”, we have the following comments made by Swami Vivekananda on Darwin’s theory while visiting the Zoological Garden at Alipur.

    “Sitting down at tea, to which the Superintendent (of the Garden) had invited him, the Swami talked on Darwin’s theory of evolution which, in his opinion, was true to a certain extent in the animal kingdom but was not applicable to the human kingdom. “Struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” may explain the origin of species in the lower order of nature, but not when rationality has been evolved. In the human kingdom, struggle and competition retard progress, said he. In his opinion,. Patanjali’s theory of “infilling of nature (prakrityapurat kshetrikavat)”, which, our readers may recall, he had explained on many previous occasions, e.g., once at Harvard University (see Chapter 11 Section III, above), offered the ultimate solution of evolution.”

    (S.N.Dhar. A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda, Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra:1975 , vol. 2, p 1125)

    What is this “prakrityapurat kshetrikavat” of Patanjali that Swami Vivekananda talks about ? It refers to two verses in the Kaivalya Pada of the Yoga Sutras.

    4.2 jatyantara parinamah prakriti apurat

    translation: The transition or transformation into another form or type of birth takes place through the filling in of their innate nature.

    4.3 nimittam aprayojakam prakritinam varana bhedas tu tatah ksetrikavat

    translation: Incidental causes or actions do not lead to the emergence of attainments or realization, but rather, come by the removal of obstacles, much like the way a farmer removes a barrier (sluice gate), so as to naturally allow the irrigation of his field.

  4. Pingback: On Conservation and Progress | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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  7. Pingback: Where does mathematics come from? | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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