In The Life Divine, there is a chapter entitled “Brahman, Ishwara, Purusha – Maya, Prakriti, Shakti“. According to the editing notes, this chapter was inserted by Sri Aurobindo as part of a revision of The Life Divine completed in 1940 . The purpose of this chapter is to reconcile three different views of the Universe proposed by the philosophies of Samkhya, Vedanta and Tantra. This intent may not be immediately apparent to those not well-versed in Indian metaphysics, because the word “Samkhya” is explicitly used only twice in this chapter while the terms “Vedanta” and “Tantra” never occur. This article is a light contextual introduction to this chapter.
Just as scientists formulate varying theories to fit the same data, Rishis also formulate multiple theories to elucidate the spiritual experiences they have of the relation between the cosmos and the individual Self. In spiritual experience, we feel ourselves becoming vast, unitive and immobile; in reality we are limited, divided and restless. In spiritual experience, we perceive a benevolent Divine pervading the Universe and elating and steeling our tiny body; in reality we see a bewildering power animating terrible cyclones and powering whirling galaxies. The ancient sages sought to capture these stark oppositions through distinctive dualities: Samkhya called it Purusha-Prakriti, Tantra defined the dual Ishwara-Shakti, and Vedanta called it Atman-Maya.
We first become aware of the Atman when in a heightened state of absorbed silence, we perceive a pervasive, immobile Presence which pervades the Universe. In this condition, we may wrongly conclude that the phenomenal world is an illusion. This is not, however, the entire Truth but just an illustration of the bewildering power of Maya. It is only when we gain a deeper and higher realization that we see that the world is not an illusion, that Maya is not contradictory to Brahman but is in reality its Atma-Shakti, the power of the Atman which creates the dynamic Universe through the use of three powers: infinite self-variation, self-absorption and self-limitation. The Atman is the basis of the Maya, it is the stable being which is “the condition and foundation of the vast action of the Force of being”.
It is this power of Maya which gives rise to the varieties of spiritual experiences, according to Sri Aurobindo:
This is also the reason why it is possible for us in certain conditions of our being to be aware of several different states of consciousness at the same time. There is a state of being experienced in Yoga in which we become a double consciousness, one on the surface, small, active, ignorant, swayed by thoughts and feelings, grief and joy and all kinds of reactions, the other within calm, vast, equal, observing the surface being with an immovable detachment or indulgence or, it may be, acting upon its agitation to quiet, enlarge, transform it. So too we can rise to a consciousness above and observe the various parts of our being, inner and outer, mental, vital and physical and the subconscient below all, and act upon one or other or the whole from that higher status. It is possible also to go down from that height or from any height into any of these lower states and take its limited light or its obscurity as our place of working while the rest that we are is either temporarily put away or put behind or else kept as a field of reference from which we can get support, sanction or light and influence or as a status into which we can ascend or recede and from it observe the inferior movements. Or we can plunge into trance, get within ourselves and be conscious there while all outward things are excluded; or we can go beyond even this inner awareness and lose ourselves in some deeper other consciousness or some high superconscience. There is also a pervading equal consciousness into which we can enter and see all ourselves with one enveloping glance or omnipresent awareness one and indivisible .
As long as the Purusha in us is passive, we are susceptible to the vagaries of Prakriti in the form of the cultural conditioning, the environmental influences and the psychological turmoil which disrupt our daily life. The first step in the soul’s freedom is to become aware of the Purusha by standing back from the three Gunas (modes of nature) – Sattwa (harmony), Rajas(kinesis) and Tamas(inertia). At this stage, Purusha and Prakriti seem to be eternally separate entities; Purusha is inactive and conscious while Prakriti is inert, mechanical and inconscient. This disparity disappears when the Purusha begins to exercise its consent over Prakriti and rises to a higher level of consciousness. In this stage, “the Purusha can cease to be subject, anisa, and become lord of its nature, isvara.” Thus, the duality between Purusha-Prakriti hides an underlying unity which manifests at the physical, vital, mental and higher levels, as Sri Aurobindo points out in this passage:
Prakriti presents itself as an inconscient Energy in the material world, but, as the scale of consciousness rises, she reveals herself more and more as a conscious force and we perceive that even her inconscience concealed a secret consciousness; so too conscious being is many in its individual souls, but in its self we can experience it as one in all and one in its own essential existence. Moreover, the experience of soul and Nature as dual is true, but the experience of their unity has also its validity…The Purusha aspect and the Prakriti aspect go always together and whatever status Nature or Consciousness-force in action assumes, manifests or develops, there is a corresponding status of the Spirit. In its supreme status the Spirit is the supreme Conscious Being, Purushottama, and the Consciousness-Force is his supreme Nature, Para-Prakriti. In each status of the gradations of Nature, the Spirit takes a poise of its being proper to that gradation; in Mind-Nature it becomes the mental being, in Life-Nature it becomes the vital being, in nature of Matter it becomes the physical being, in supermind it becomes the Being of Knowledge; in the supreme spiritual status it becomes the Being of Bliss and pure Existence. In us, in the embodied individual, it stands behind all as the psychic Entity, the inner Self supporting the other formulations of our consciousness and spiritual existence .
The Purusha-Prakriti duality of Samkhya does not capture the Divine in its role as the omnipotent, omniscient ruler of the universe. For this, one must turn to Tantra and its dualistic conception of Ishwara-Shakti.
The Ishwara of Tantra is neither the Nirguna Brahman devoid of qualities which is experienced during Nirvana nor is it the Saguna Brahman active and possessed of qualities which is experienced in a state of cosmic consciousness. Both of these are merely aspects and powers of Ishwara.
Sri Aurobindo also cautions us against adopting a view of the Divine governance which is “either incurably anthropomorphic or else incurably mechanical”. The anthropomorphic view is observed in Abrahamic religions which posit a righteous and vengeful God who sends down his chosen prophets once in a while to reveal the strict ethical laws that mankind has to obey to gain salvation. The mechanical view posits a world which is bound by the fixed laws of Nature. Both these views are incorrect. The reality is that the Ishwara is not just external to the Universe but has also “become” the Universe and pervades all beings within it; he is supracosmic and intracosmic; the laws of Nature which seem mechanical can indeed be transcended when we rise to a greater consciousness.
These are some verses from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri on the Ishwara-Shakti aspect which characterizes the Universe.
This is the knot that ties together the stars:
The Two who are one are the secret of all power,
The Two who are one are the might and right in things.
His soul, silent, supports the world and her,
His acts are her commandment’s registers.
Happy, inert, he lies beneath her feet:
His breast he offers for her cosmic dance
Of which our lives are the quivering theatre,
And none could bear but for his strength within,
Yet none would leave because of his delight.
His works, his thoughts have been devised by her,
His being is a mirror vast of hers:
Active, inspired by her he speaks and moves;
His deeds obey her heart’s unspoken demands:
Passive, he bears the impacts of the world
As if her touches shaping his soul and life:
His journey through the days is her sun-march;
He runs upon her roads; hers is his course.
A witness and student of her joy and dole,
A partner in her evil and her good,
He has consented to her passionate ways,
He is driven by her sweet and dreadful force.
(Savitri, Book I, Canto IV, The Secret Knowledge)
The seventh line above states : ‘His breast he offers for her cosmic dance‘. Here, Sri Aurobindo is alluding to the popular image of Goddess Kali dancing on the chest of Shiva, which was intended to illustrate the play of feminine Power (Kali) on the substratum of the masculine principle (Shiva) which inhabits the Universe.
Reconciliation by Arthur Avalon
The reconciliation of these three dualities had been attempted earlier by the British orientalist John Woodroffe (nom de plume Arthur Avalon) in a talk he gave at the Chaitanya Library in Kolkata on 18th January, 1915 . Avalon’s talk was subsequently published in his 1915 book “Creation in Tantra” and also appears in a slightly edited form as chapter 19 “Creation as Explained in the Non-dualist Tantras” in his 1918 book “Shakti and Shakta“. There is no preliminary evidence to suggest that Sri Aurobindo was influenced by Avalon’s work because he had already moved to Pondicherry five years before in 1910 and was more occupied with meditation and writing the Arya than reading books.
This is the opening passage of Avalon’s talk:
A Psychological analysis of our worldly experience ordinarily gives us both the feeling of persistence and change. This personal experience expresses a cosmic truth. An examination of any doctrine of creation similarly reveals two fundamental concepts, those of Being and Becoming, Changelessness and Change, the One and the Many. In Sanskrit, they are called the Kutastha and Bhava or Bhavana. The first is the Spirit or Purusha or Brahman and Atman which is unlimited Being (Sat), Consciousness (Cit) and Bliss (Ananda). According to Indian notions the Atman as such is and never becomes. Its Power (Shakti) manifests as Nature, which is the subject of change. We may understand Nature in a two-fold sense: first, as the root principle or noumenal cause of the phenomenal world, that is, as the Principle of Becoming and secondly, as such World. Nature in the former sense is Mulaprakriti, which means that which exists as the root (Mula) substance of things before (Pra), creation (Kriti), and which, in association with Cit, either truly or apparently creates, maintains and destroys the Universe. This Mulaprakriti the Sharada Tilaka calls Mulabhuta Avyakta, and the Vedanta (of Shamkara to which alone I refer) Maya.
The rest of the talk can be read online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/sas/sas19.htm. Avalon cites numerous scriptures as part of his lucubration.
The need for flexibility
At this point, it must be emphasized that philosophies like Samkhya, Vedanta and Tantra should be used as a support for intuition and not a rigid logical system for disputation. Our goal must always be the verification of philosophies through one’s spiritual experience.
Sri Aurobindo once told a disciple, Pavitra, that he had to change his conception of the Universe a few times after his spiritual experiences: “In spiritual life, one must always be ready to reject every system and all constructions. For a time a certain form is useful, then it becomes harmful. In my spiritual life, since I was forty (i.e. year 1912) I have three or four times completely discarded and broken the system I had arrived at.” .
Writing elsewhere on the same topic, he said:
Parabrahman being Absolute is not subject to logic, for logic applies only to the determinate. We talk confusion if we say that the Absolute cannot manifest the determinate and therefore the universe is false or non-existent. The very nature of the Absolute is that we do not know what it is or is not, what it can do or cannot do; we have no reason to suppose that there is anything it cannot do or that its Absoluteness is limited by any kind of impotency. We experience spiritually that when we go beyond everything else we come to something Absolute; we experience spiritually that the universe is in the nature of a manifestation proceeding, as it were, from the Absolute; but all these words and phrases are merely intellectual terms trying to express the inexpressible. We must state what we see as best as we can, but need not dispute what others see or state; rather we must accept and in our own system locate and account for what they have seen and stated. Our only dispute is with those who deny credit to the vision or freedom and value to the statements of others; not with those who are content with stating their own vision.
A philosophical or religious system is only a statement of that arrangement of existence in universe which God has revealed to us as our status of being. It is given in order that the mind may have something to stand upon while we act in Prakriti. But our vision need not be precisely the same in arrangement as the vision of others, nor is the form of thought that suits our mentality bound to suit a mentality differently constituted. Firmness, without dogmatism, in our own system, toleration, without weakness, of all other systems should therefore be our intellectual outlook.
You will find disputants questioning your system on the ground that it is not consistent with this or that Shastra or this or that great authority, whether philosopher, saint or Avatar. Remember then that realisation and experience are alone of essential importance. What Shankara argued or Vivekananda conceived intellectually about existence or even what Ramakrishna stated from his multitudinous and varied realisation, is only of value to you so far as you are moved by God to accept and renew it in your own experience. The opinions of thinkers and saints and Avatars should be accepted as hints but not as fetters. What matters to you is what you have seen or what God in His univeral personality or impersonally or again personally in some teacher, guru or pathfinder undertakes to show you in the path of Yoga .
Sri Aurobindo concludes that there is no contradiction or incompatibility between these three aspects of Existence and the three modes of its Dynamis working in the universe.
In the last few pages of the chapter, Sri Aurobindo explicates the relation between the Non-Manifest and manifestation and between Time and the Timeless Spirit, which is also worth reading (part of it was covered in an earlier post – Spacetime in occult worlds). This article is not intended to be a summary of the chapter because I do not wish to shred and dilute the profound ideas into an itemized list for casual consumption; it is best to read Sri Aurobindo directly and absorb the flow of his lucid reasoning on your own.
Ram Shankar Misra wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Life Divine in 1952 at the Banaras Hindu University, which was later published as a book titled “The Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo”. This book has a section which discusses the reconciliation between Samkhya, Vedanta and Tantra. I have utilized a part of his synopsis in my presentation above.
- Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, CWSA vol. 21-22, pp. 1113-1117.
- Ibid., p. 360.
- Ibid., pp. 364-366.
- John Woodroffe. Creation as explained in the Tantra, Unknown Binding – 1915, p 1.
- Pavitra. Conversations with Sri Aurobindo. 11 January, 1926.
- Sri Aurobindo. Essays Divine and Human. CWSA vol. 12, p 104.
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