Difference between genius and mysticism

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates speaks of the four types of Divine madness(ecstasy) – prophetic, initiatory, poetic and erotic – which humans can obtain as gifts from the Gods.  The gift of prophecy exemplified by the oracle at Delphi comes from Apollo, the mystic rites which bring relief from hardship are a gift from Dionysus, the gift of poetry is seen in those artists who are possessed by the Muses and lastly, the gift of love, which Socrates calls the best of the four, is derived from Eros[1].  This fourth madness is the universal love manifested by the mystic; it is, according to Socrates, “imputed to him who, when he sees the beauty of earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly away, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad”[2].

The School of Athens - fresco by Raffaello Sanzio. Click image for source

Along similar lines, the Mother once lucubrated on the difference between geniuses and mystics.  Her answer may help us understand why it is that sages, who have attained Enlightenment and are supposed to be in constant union with the Supreme Divine, do not possess the unique spectacular talents that are often displayed by geniuses, why they are not found resolving unsolved math problems, painting like Picasso, playing chess like grandmasters, or discovering novel groundbreaking drugs.

During one of her regular dialogues with Ashram inmates, the Mother was asked to elucidate on the following passage from Sri Aurobindo’s writings:

“In the pursuit of perfection we can start at either end of our range of being and we have then to use, initially at least, the means and processes proper to our choice. In Yoga the process is spiritual and psychic; even its vital and physical processes are given a spiritual or psychic turn and raised to a higher motion than belongs properly to the ordinary life and Matter, as for instance in the Hathayogic and Rajayogic use of the breathing or the use of Asana…. On the other hand, if we start in any field at the lower end we have to employ the means and processes which Life and Matter offer to us and respect the  conditions and what we may call the technique imposed by the vital and the material energy. We may extend the activity, the achievement, the perfection attained beyond the initial, even beyond the normal possibilities but still we have to stand on the same base with which we started and within the boundaries it gives to us. It is not that the action from the two ends cannot meet and the higher take into itself and uplift the lower perfection; but this can usually be done only by a transition from the lower to a higher outlook, aspiration and motive: this we shall have to do if our aim is to transform the human into the divine life. But here there comes in the necessity of taking up the activities of human life and sublimating them by the power of the spirit. Here the lower perfection will not disappear; it will remain but will be enlarged and transformed by the higher perfection which only the power of the spirit can give.”

(The Supramental Manifestation, SABCL, vol. 16, pp. 5 – 8)

Question: Sweet Mother, here Sri Aurobindo speaks of “the higher perfection” and “the lower perfection”…

Mother: The higher perfection is the spiritual perfection, integral union with the Divine, identification with the Divine, freedom from all the limitations of the lower world. That is spiritual perfection, the perfection that comes from yoga—quite independent of the body and the physical world—which, in ancient times, meant first rejecting the body and the physical life so as to have a relation only with the higher world and finally with the Divine. That is the higher perfection.

And the lower perfection is to be able to make the human being in his present form and in his body, in his relation with all terrestrial things, do the utmost he can. This is the case of all great men of genius: artistic genius, literary genius, genius in organisation, the great rulers, those who have carried physical capacities to their maximum perfection, human development to the limit of its possibilities; and, for instance, all those who have complete control over their bodies and succeed in doing miraculous things, as we saw, for example, during the war, with the airmen: they made their bodies do things which at first sight seemed quite impossible, they obtained from them an endurance, a skill, a power which were almost unthinkable.  And from every point of view: from the point of view of physical strength, of intellectual realisation, of the physical qualities of energy and courage, of disinterestedness, goodness, charity; all human qualities carried to their utmost limits. That is the lower perfection.

The higher perfection is spiritual and super-human. The lower perfection is human perfection carried to its maximum limits, and this may be quite independent of all spiritual life, all spiritual aspiration. One can be a genius without having any spiritual aspiration. One can have all the most extraordinary moral qualities without having any spiritual life. And even, usually, those who have a very great power of human realisation are satisfied—more or less satisfied—with their condition. They feel they are self-sufficient, that they carry in themselves the source of their realisation and their joy, and it is usually very difficult to make them understand and feel that they are not the creators of their own creations, whatever they may be. Most of them, with very rare exceptions, if they were told, “You are not the originator of this work you are doing, it is a force higher than you and you are only its instrument”, they would dislike it very much—and they will send you about your business! Therefore, these two perfections are really divergent in ordinary life. It was said in the old yoga that the first condition for doing yoga was to be disgusted with life. But those who have realised this human perfection are very rarely disgusted with life, unless they have met with personal difficulties such as the ingratitude of people around them, the lack of understanding of their genius which was not sufficiently appreciated—so all this disgusts them, but otherwise, so long as they are in their period of success and creation, they are perfectly satisfied. So, as they are satisfied —above all, self-satisfied—they don’t need to seek anything else.

It is not essentially true, but this is usually how things happen, and unless there is in this genius a soul which is perfectly conscious of itself and has come to accomplish a specific work on earth, he may very well be born, grow up and die without knowing that there is anything other than this earthly life. And above all it is this, you see, this feeling of having achieved the utmost realisation which gives a satisfaction that keeps one from needing anything else…. If they have a soul that’s fully conscious of itself and fully conscious of its purpose in the physical world, there could be a vague feeling that all this is pretty hollow, that all these achievements are a little too superficial and that something is lacking; but that comes only to those who are predestined, and after all, in the mass of humanity, there are not very many of them.

Only those who are predestined can combine these two perfections and realise something integral…. This is quite rare. The great spiritual leaders have very rarely been great realisers in the physical world. It has happened, but it is very rare. Only those who are conscious incarnations of the Divine naturally carry in themselves the possibility of the two perfections, but this is exceptional. People who had a spiritual life, a great spiritual realisation, were able at certain exceptional moments to have a capacity for outward realisation; this also was exceptional, but it was intermittent and never had the integrality, the totality, the perfection of those who concentrated on material realisation.  And this is why those who live only in the external consciousness, for whom the earthly material life is all that really exists, concrete and tangible, perceptible to all, always feel that spiritual life is something hazy, something almost mediocre from the material point of view.

I have met many people—“many”, well, quite a number —who wanted to demonstrate that spiritual powers gave a great capacity for outer realisation and who tried, in certain exceptional spiritual states or conditions, to paint or to compose music or write poetry; well, everything that they produced was thoroughly second-rate and could not be compared with the works of the great geniuses who had mastered material nature —and this of course gave the materialists a good opening: “You see, your so-called power is nothing at all.” But this was because in their external life they were ordinary men; for the greatest spiritual power, if it enters material that’s not educated, will produce a result far superior to what that individual would have been able to achieve in his ordinary state, but far inferior to what a genius who has mastered matter can produce. It is not enough that “the Spirit bloweth”, the instrument must also be capable of manifesting it.

I believe that is one of the things Sri Aurobindo is going to explain: why it is necessary to give to the physical, external being, its full development, the capacity of controlling matter directly; then you put at the disposal of the Spirit an instrument capable of manifesting it, otherwise… Yes, I knew several people who in their ordinary state could not write three lines without making a mistake, not only spelling mistakes but mistakes of language, that is, who could not express one thought clearly— well, in their moments of spiritual inspiration, they used to write very beautiful things, but all the same these very beautiful things were not so beautiful as the works of the greatest writers. These things seemed remarkable in comparison with what they could do in their ordinary state; it was true, their present possibilities were used to the maximum, it was something that gave a value to what otherwise would have had none at all. But supposing you take a real genius—a musician or artist or writer of genius —who has fully mastered his instrument, who can use it to produce works that express the utmost human possibility, if you add to this a spiritual consciousness, the supramental force, then you will have something truly divine.

And this is precisely the key to the effort Sri Aurobindo wanted us to make.

And your body, if you draw from it all the possibilities it holds, if you educate it by the normal, well-known, scientific methods, if you make this instrument into something as perfect as possible, then, when the supramental truth manifests in that body, it will become immediately—without centuries of preparation—a marvellous instrument for the expression of the Spirit.

That is why Sri Aurobindo used to repeat and has always said: You must work from both ends, not let go of one for the other. And certainly, if you want to have a divine consciousness, you must not give up spiritual aspiration; but if you want to become an integral divine being on earth, take good care not to let go of the other end, and make your body the best possible instrument.

It is a disease of the ordinary human intellect—which comes, moreover, from separation, division—to make a thing always either this or that. If you choose this, you turn your back on that; if you choose that, you turn your back on this. It is an impoverishment. One must know how to take up everything, combine everything, synthesise everything. And then one has an integral realisation [3].

References

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaedrus_%28dialogue%29
  2. Plato.  PhaedrusTranslated by Benjamin Jowett 
  3. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 9, pp 90-95. (online)

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22 thoughts on “Difference between genius and mysticism

  1. amsha

    It’s what in ancient Egypt was symbolized by double feather – truth of the inner and truth of the outer being.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      There is a wikipedia page on two-feather crowns
      Do you have a reference for the meaning? It seems to have been worn by Amun as well as kings

      From Egyptian Symbols by Heike Owusu page 131

      The double-feather crown identifies the creator god, Amun, who later was worshiped as the sun god, Amun-Re. In this way, a connection was created with the sky and sun god, Horus, who likewise wore this as a head ornament.

      Reply
      1. amsha

        Hieroglyphs ‘atef crown’, which we read from right to left:

        Self-aware, day consciousness/

        Atef, the father,
        The creative intent we are/

        Such is psychological definition
        Of the ‘atef crown’ standing on
        The horns breaking all the obstacles,
        Opening all the doors,
        Bearing the feathers of the double truth
        Of the inner and the outer worlds
        Around the mitre of illumination.

        The Royal Cubit
        Psychometrics of Ancient Egypt
        By Medhananda
        p. 161

        That’s what I managed to find quickly but there are few more
        places where he mentions it.

      2. amsha

        Of course I knew. I bought his books from SABDA quite long ago but didn’t really read them before now. Thank you for the link.

  2. amsha

    Horus has them as well.

    Utterance 245
    250: This Unas comes to you, O Nut,
    this Unas comes to you, O Nut!
    He has thrown his father down to earth
    he has left a Horus behind him.
    His two wings have grown as those of a hawk,
    (his) two feathers (are those) of a holy hawk.
    His soul has brought him (here),
    his magical power has adorned him.

    Pyramid Texts

    Reply
  3. Sandeep Post author

    Mother says above: “One can be a genius without having any spiritual aspiration. One can have all the most extraordinary moral qualities without having any spiritual life. And even, usually, those who have a very great power of human realisation are satisfied—more or less satisfied—with their condition. They feel they are self-sufficient, that they carry in themselves the source of their realisation and their joy, and it is usually very difficult to make them understand and feel that they are not the creators of their own creations, whatever they may be. Most of them, with very rare exceptions, if they were told, “You are not the originator of this work you are doing, it is a force higher than you and you are only its instrument”, they would dislike it very much—and they will send you about your business! ”

    Sri Aurobindo conveys the same idea in these verses from Savitri, Book VII, Canto VI:

    Our tasks are given, we are but instruments;
    Nothing is all our own that we create:
    The Power that acts in us is not our force.
    The genius too receives from some high fount
    Concealed in a supernal secrecy
    The work that gives him an immortal name.
    The word, the form, the charm, the glory and grace
    Are missioned sparks from a stupendous Fire;
    A sample from the laboratory of God
    Of which he holds the patent upon earth,
    Comes to him wrapped in golden coverings;
    He listens for Inspiration’s postman knock
    And takes delivery of the priceless gift
    A little spoilt by the receiver mind
    Or mixed with the manufacture of his brain;
    When least defaced, then is it most divine.
    Although his ego claims the world for its use,
    Man is a dynamo for the cosmic work;
    Nature does most in him, God the high rest:
    Only his soul’s acceptance is his own.

    Reply
  4. Prashant

    Sri Aurobindo also speaks of a simultaneous “double evolution” in The Life Divine (p. 890, CWSA Vol. 22), justifying the need for a concurrent push in Nature towards both a “lower” and a “higher” perfection:


    [The] creative Consciousness-Force in our earth existence has to lead forward, in an almost simultaneous process but with a considerable priority and greater stress of the inferior element, a double evolution. There is an evolution of our outward nature, the nature of the mental being in the life and body, and there is within it, pressing forward for self-revelation because with the emergence of mind that revelation is becoming possible, a preparation at least, even the beginning of an evolution of our inner being, our occult subliminal and spiritual nature. But Nature’s major preoccupation must necessarily be still and for a long time the evolution of mind to its greatest possible range, height, subtlety; for only so can be prepared the unveiling of an entirely intuitive intelligence, of overmind, of supermind, the difficult passage to a higher instrumentation of the Spirit. If the sole intention were the revelation of the essential spiritual Reality and a cessation of our being into its pure existence, this insistence on the mental evolution would have no purpose: for at every point of the nature there can be a breaking out of the spirit and an absorption of our being into it; an intensity of the heart, a total silence of the mind, a single absorbing passion of the will would be enough to bring about that culminating movement. If Nature’s final intention were other-worldly, then too the same law would hold; for everywhere, at any point of the nature, there can be a sufficient power of the other-worldly urge to break through and away from the terrestrial action and enter into a spiritual elsewhere. But if her intention is a comprehensive change of the being, this double evolution is intelligible and justifies itself; for it is for that purpose indispensable.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Thanks! I didn’t think of looking in the Life Divine. This passage is from the chapter on “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”.

      It is not by books that Sri Aurobindo ought to be studied but by subjects – what he has said on the Divine, on Unity, on religion, on evolution, on education, on self-perfection, on supermind, etc, etc.

      (Mother Mirra Alfassa, Collected Works, Vol 12, p 208)

      Reply
  5. Sandeep Post author

    A case of acquired Savant Syndrome

    Eight years ago Jason Padgett was beaten up during a robbery in Tacoma, Washington. A traumatic assault with an unlikely ending. “They ran up behind me, smashed me behind the head, knocked me out .” But unlike the majority of people who suffer a brain injury and lose abilities; Jason gained the rare ability to see and draw certain mathematical images. Specialists told him he likely acquired savant syndrome.

    It’s very rare. Injury to one part of Jason’s brain began to compensate by making more neural connections …in Jason’s case in the part of his brain that analyzes geometry.

    See his images http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/jason-padgett.html

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Comparing Roger Penrose and Sri Aurobindo on the Mind | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  7. Pingback: How does the Self-realized person speak? (Gita 2:54) | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  8. Sandeep Post author

    People with Asperger’s syndrome often have above-average mental skills but problems in dealing with other people. It is a form of autism that can make it difficult to hold down a job. But that’s not the case at one company in Germany. They are being hired out to work as IT consultants and especially to use their gifts for concentration and logical thinking to correct mistakes in new computer programs. Al Jazeera’s Nick Spicer reports from Berlin.

    Reply
  9. Mark

    Sandeep: Thank you for this topic. And for the two videos.

    Here are some quotes by SA on genius (and SA just happens to be on the topic of poetry, I am not trying to make any connection specifically regarding the genius of poetic reverie and your blog topic, I simply have no other resource of SA’s on this topic of genius):

    “I never heard of anyone getting genius by effort. One can increase one’s talent by training and labor, but genius is a gift of Nature. By sadhana it is different, one can do it; but that is not the fruit of effort, but either of an inflow or by an opening or liberation of some impersonal power. No rule can be made of such things; it depends on persons and circumstances, how far the manifestation of genius by Yoga will go or what shape it will take or to what degree or height it will rise.” Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry, Literature and Art, pp.228

    And:

    “Genius usually means an inborn power which develops of itself. Talent and capacity are not genius, they can be acquired.” ibid.

    And:

    “Poetic genius — without which there cannot be any originality — is born, but it takes time to come out; the first work even of great poets is often not original. That is in ordinary life. In Yoga poetic originality can come by an opening from within, even if it was not there before in such a way to be available in this life.” ibid. pp.229

    Points of interest:
    One: “genius is a gift of nature.”
    Two: “the manifestation of genius by Yoga”
    Three: “Genius usually means an inborn power…”

    Reply
    1. mw

      “There is always something abnormal and eccentric about men of genius. And why not? For genius is an abnormal birth and out of man’s ordinary center.” -Sri Aurobindo {Thoughts and Aphorisms}

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

  11. mwb6119

    The Mother [above]: “It is a disease of the ordinary human intellect—which comes, moreover, from separation, division—to make a thing always either this or that. If you choose this, you turn your back on that; if you choose that, you turn your back on this. It is an impoverishment. One must know how to take up everything, combine everything, synthesise everything. And then one has an integral realisation [3]”

    Since this is considered a disease of the separative consciousness, how then can it be repaired? If we are diseased, infected, by the separative consciousness, then how would we be able to know to “combine everything, synthesis everything” to gain the “integral realization”? If we are infected we would naturally have no, or little, insight into the integral consciousness. If the lower is neglected then, it would take a serious effort to develop a skill. And not all are talented masterful genius’. 🙂

    Reply
    1. nizken

      It’s the difference between Kant and Goethe. I think this book (or even just its preface) by Walter Arnold Kaufmann will be very useful to you imho. This 3 volume series was a good summary of most kinds of ordinary philosophical cognition.
      Walter Arnold Kaufmann– Discovering the Mind

      Reply
    2. Sandeep

      Mark : Since this is considered a disease of the separative consciousness, how then can it be repaired?

      She is commenting on our attitude which needs to be changed, and not on some fundamental inaptitude.

      Reply

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