Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa frequently spoke of ascents and descents which occur during meditation. Ramana Maharshi, when informed of these statements, firmly denied any such occurrences. Such puzzling contradictions can occur due to different vocabularies used by various sages as well as the varied transformations by which they attain Self-realization. In this article, I will endeavour to outline the resolution to this contradiction and hopefully clear the confusion.
Disciple: Ramana Maharshi does not believe in the descent (of the Supermind).
Sri Aurobindo: It – the descent – is the experience of many practitioners (Sadhaks) even outside our Yoga. An old Sanyasi of the Ramakrishna Mission saw a flood of light descending and when he asked he was told it was all the work of the devil and the whole experience stopped afterwards. In Maharshi’s case he has received the thing in the heart and has worked with it, so he does not feel the descent.
[A.B. Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 10th December, 1938]
Another recorded conversation along these lines is as follows.
Disciple: I asked Mother in Sri Aurobindo Ashram the following question: `I keep my mind blank without thoughts arising so that God might show himself in his true being. But I do not perceive anything.’ The reply was to this effect: `The attitude is right. The power will come down from above. It is a direct experience.’ Should I do anything further?
Ramana Maharshi: Be what you are. There is nothing to come down or become manifest. All that is necessary is to lose the ego. That which is is always there. Even now you are that. You are not apart from it
[David Godman, Be As You Are, p 102]
It is well-known among Yoga practitioners that the Kundalini ascends through the spinal cord from the bottom of the spine(Muladhara Chakra) towards the top of the head (Sahasrara Chakra). Sri Aurobindo, expanding on this concept, pointed out that the subtle mental and vital sheaths can also concomitantly rise up above the physical body during this ascent process. All the planes of the Superconscient are located above the head – not in absolute spatial terms but relative to the human consciousness (God is not in the sky!). Through the movement of Kundalini, we come into contact with these higher planes of the Superconscient and become purified.
During a state of rapture, the eyes may become unconscious of the physical world and turn upward along with a palpable feeling of something in the heart being released and rising above. This is an example of the vital sheath ascending above the physical sheath. Similarly, when the mind reverberates with an active silence, there is a feeling of stress release in the brain and an expansion above the head. This is because, unknown to us, the mental sheath is ascending above the physical body. As Sri Aurobindo wrote to a disciple:
The force which you felt must evidently have been a rising of the Kundalini ascending to join the Force above and bring down the energy needed to ease the depression and then again rising to enforce the connection between the Above and the lower centres. The seeming expansion of the head is due to the joining of the mind with the consciousness of the Self or Divine above. That consciousness is wide and illimitable and, when one rises into it, the individual consciousness also breaks its limits and feels wide and illimitable. At such times one often feels as if there were no head and no body but all were a wide self and its consciousness, or else the head or the body is only a circumstance in that.
Chest and head rising higher are sensations of the subtle body – it means that the mind and heart consciousness (thinking mental and emotional) are rising to meet the spiritual consciousness plane above the head.
That [rising above the head] is very good. Such risings help to break down the lid between the higher and lower planes in the consciousness and prepare the wideness.
Correspondingly, the descent experience occurs when the higher consciousness cascades down through the body via the Kundalini, working its way through the head (mental sheath), inundating the vital sheath, bringing peace and bliss, until it reaches the last Chakra at the bottom of the spine (i.e. physical sheath).
For more on this, see the pages on Ascent experience and Descent experience. Based on this information, one could conceivably adumbrate on the Supramental Ascent and Descent that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa underwent but we won’t go into that here.
As an aside, to avoid confusion, we should also mention the cosmic ascent-descent process that Sri Aurobindo spoke of, which is distinct from the yogic ascent-descent which occurs in man. According to him, the seven planes of consciousness are not rigidly demarcated but overlapping, interactive and influencing each other, giving rise to evolution – cultural, biological and cosmic – which goes on over aeonic cycles. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in the Life Divine
But how does this ascending series (of consciousness) affect the possibilities of our material existence? It would not affect them at all if each plane of consciousness, each world of existence, each grade of substance, each degree of cosmic force were cut off entirely from that which precedes and that which follows it. But the opposite is the truth; the manifestation of the Spirit is a complex weft and in the design and pattern of one principle all the others enter as elements of the spiritual whole. Our material world is the result of all the others, for the other principles have all descended into Matter to create the physical universe, and every particle of what we call Matter contains all of them implicit in itself; their secret action, as we have seen, is involved in every moment of its existence and every movement of its activity. And as Matter is the last word of the descent, so it is also the first word of the ascent; as the powers of all these planes, worlds, grades, degrees are involved in the material existence, so are they all capable of evolution out of it. It is for this reason that material being does not begin and end with gases and chemical compounds and physical forces and movements, with nebulae and suns and earths, but evolves life, evolves mind, must evolve eventually Supermind and the higher degrees of the spiritual existence. Evolution comes by the unceasing pressure of the supra-material planes on the material compelling it to deliver out of itself their principles and powers which might conceivably otherwise have slept imprisoned in the rigidity of the material formula. This would even so have been improbable, since their presence there implies a purpose of deliverance; but still this necessity from below is actually very much aided by a kindred superior pressure.
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Ascending Series of Substance