Why Sri Aurobindo?
Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to Indian Psychology
last revision: January 10, 2017
This chapter can at several places be shortened with references to later chapters where the concerned issue is treated in more detail. Missing issues?
Introduction: Why Sri Aurobindo?
In the newly developing field of Indian Psychology, Sri Aurobindo is more often mentioned than any of his contemporaries and those who are not familiar with his work might wonder why this is the case. In this chapter I will try to show that there are a number of specific reasons that justify the unique place Sri Aurobindo’s work occupies in the development of Indian psychology.
Sri Aurobindo’s work is based on a deep experiential as well as intellectual understanding of the Indian tradition. His psychological interpretation of the Ṛg Veda and early Upaniṣads led him to re-conceptualise Darwin's evolution as primarily an evolution of consciousness, an evolution that could take humanity way beyond its at present limited psychological capacities, especially in areas like inner knowledge, building harmony, creation of beauty, care of each other and the planet, etc. It is this vision, and the great practical detail in which he has worked it out, that forms the first major reason for modern Psychology to pay special attention to Sri Aurobindo’s work. Sri Aurobindo's vision of the future allows for a refined and subtle understanding of the progressive nature of meaning and values, and the great practical detail in which he has worked these issues out forms the second major reason for modern Psychology to pay special attention to Sri Aurobindo’s work. The third reason is the integrality of Sri Aurobindo’s approach to yoga. Traditional paths of yoga, which aim at mokṣa and mukti, don’t demand integrality, as their aim does not demand it: it only requires a highly specialised and consistent use of one or two chosen faculties. Sri Aurobindo’s aim of integral transformation, on the other hand, forced him to build a comprehensive model of human nature and change. As he considered yoga essentially a specialised use of natural psychological processes, his methods of enquiry and change are moreover entirely psychological in nature. Finally, he combined in himself an exceptional intellectual acumen and literary genius, with a perhaps even more exceptional depth and breadth of inner realisation1a. The rest of this article is an attempt at substantiating these bold assertions and delineating how these different factors have contributed to the unique position his work occupies in the development of Indian psychology.
Ascetic, religious and integral approaches to spirituality
Within India there is an enormous variety of different spiritual traditions, but one can fruitfully divide this multitude of religious and spiritual schools, into two major streams, the impersonal and the personal. The older texts still hold the two in an admirable balance, and effortlessly flow from one to the other, but later philosophical and intellectual texts on yoga have a tendency to focus more on the abstract and the impersonal, leaving the pursuit of the personal Divine to popular religion and devotion. Within the theoretical, impersonal stream, the original integrality gradually got lost even further, and for at least 2500 years, intellectual India has focused more on the silent, transcendent aspect of the Divine than on the involved dynamic aspect. Accordingly, the immediate, practical aim of spiritual practice is now widely described in purely negative terms. This may sound too negative, but it is not hard to substantiate. One need to look no further than the way the three most widely accepted authorities in the field of Indian spirituality speak of the ultimate aim of both life and the inner quest: the Buddha speaks of nirvāṇa (extinction), Patanjali of cittavṛtti nirodhana (silencing or quieting the mind), and Shankara, of mukti (liberation).2 Even where the language remained more positive, as in Tantra and some schools of mahāyāna Buddhism, the ultimate aim is still commonly phrased as “not to be reborn”. Strangely, this holds even for the Bhakti tradition, which has as its immediate aim union with the divine Beloved: The personal, incarnate Divine is here seen as engaged in helping his or her devotees to reach a stage where they will “not be reborn”.
There are many things noteworthy about this development. The first one is that the aim of “not-being reborn” is a later development. It is not yet there in the oldest Indian texts, like the Ṛg Veda and the older Upaniṣads. There the aim is still, as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka puts it, “Light, Truth, and Immortality”. The second one is that this pessimistic outlook on life cannot but have had a negative effect on the vitality of the Indian civilization as a whole, and Sri Aurobindo considers it likely that it has been one of the factors that facilitated the long period of political, economical and cultural subjugation, out of which India is only now re-arising. The third point is, that during the later period, of the three classical aspects of the Divine — the Transcendent, the Personal and the Cosmic — the Cosmic almost completely disappeared from view. As far as it is mentioned, it is as the circumstance, the ground on which the play between the human and the Divine takes place. As circumstance, it is, moreover, often seen as a field of māyā, an illusion, which is getting more and more dark as we descend further towards the bottom of the kaliyuga from which the wise escape into the purity of the spirit. In other words, while in the older texts, the world is seen in its entirety as manifestation of the Divine, in later Indian spirituality, this idea is still confirmed in theory but less and less in practice. Sarvam Brahman, all is God, remains one of the most popular mahāvākya (great sayings), but there develops an increasing tendency to hold only the silent, Absolute Brahman as the true Divine, and to look at the manifest world at best as some kind of imposition (adhyāropa) or illusion superimposed on the divine Silence. As far as scriptures like the Gita exhort people to do their best for society, it is to keep society from falling even further apart so that it remains a place in which people can work on their spiritual development. In short, the world in which we live is looked at as a place dominated by pain and suffering from which it is best to escape, whether into nirvāṇa, samādhi or other otherworldly mokṣa.
In modern, cosmopolitan India, this ascetic, life-shunning attitude is less and less appreciated. The global culture, in spite of all its scepticism and worries about the future of the world, is essentially optimistic (at least in the developing world), and amongst young India, there is a widespread, and it seems growing, tendency to look down on the old spiritual asceticism and see it as an exaggerated negativity. As far as anyone cares about spirituality, it is in a more positive, but also a more superficial sense. Yoga tends to be taken up, as in the West, as a means to make our otherwise materialist lives less stressful, more healthy and enjoyable.
What misses in both views of the world — the traditional ascetic and the modern materialistic views — is a deep, loving understanding of the cosmos as a dynamic, evolving manifestation of the Divine. The evolving, cosmic aspect of the Divine, which got increasingly neglected in the post-Buddhist period of the Indian tradition, still stood central in many passages of the Ṛg Veda, and it is this aspect of the Indian tradition that Sri Aurobindo has brought back to our collective attention. As a result, when Sri Aurobindo talks about yoga, he means something quite different than most others, whether traditional or “new age”. Sri Aurobindo still describes the ultimate aim of yoga as the realisation of oneness with the Divine, but he attaches a far more complex dynamic and all-inclusive meaning both to the word “Divine”, and to the oneness.
The idea of an on-going evolution of consciousness
Sri Aurobindo looks at yoga within the context of an on-going evolution of consciousness. He argues that the essence of the evolution Darwin discovered is not just an increase in complexity, but rather a gradual emancipation of higher and higher levels of consciousness. In this context, he takes yoga as a means for the individual to speed up the evolutionary process and move towards the embodiment of a higher level of consciousness than the mind. Overlaying an ancient Vedic system of seven distinct layers of consciousness on the biological evolution of Darwin, he argues that Nature has managed so far to embody the lower three levels (annam or matter, prana or life, and manas or mind) and that the logical next step for Nature should be the embodiment of the fourth. This fourth layer, according to this Vedic system of seven, is a link-plane that connects the lower hemisphere of matter, life and mind, with the upper hemisphere of saccidānanda. Its characteristic quality is a genuinely Gnostic consciousness that on the one hand is still fully aware of its Divine origin, and that yet, on the other hand, already allows differentiation within itself. As such it is the only type of consciousness that can possibly enable a perfect, genuinely divine life on earth. Though in the mass, humanity is clearly still busy perfecting the third, the mental consciousness, Sri Aurobindo holds that at least some individuals should at this moment be able to make a beginning with the transformation that ultimately will lead to this higher type of conscious existence.
At first sight, all this may sound way too "far-out", and considering the state humanity is presently in, utterly unrealistic. But Sri Aurobindo was not given to speaking lightly. In his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, he laid a solid philosphical foundation for his ideas, and from his autobiographical poetry and his many prose writings that deal with psychology, it is clear that he knew from direct personal experience the different types of consciousness he describes. The detailed manner in which Sri Aurobindo developed his vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, leads to so many fascinating psychological insights and practical know-how, that we have devoted a separate chapter to it.
The world as a progressive manifestation of consciousness.
In later Sanskrit texts, māyā has the meaning of illusion, the creation of an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Consciousness is in this same view seen as essentially empty of form, structure, movement, and power. Our ordinary awareness of a changing world in which we, as individuals, can have an influence on the course of events is then taken as due to a mistaken conflation of the pure consciousness we essentially and eternally are, with the temporary movements of our mind. Sri Aurobindo revisited both terms. He takes māyā in its earlier sense, in which it is still used in the Ṛg Veda. Māyā is there an in itself neutral creative power which “measures out the worlds”. The world is in this view not an illusion, but a genuine, if unfinished and as such in some sense imperfect, manifestation of the Divine. Consciousness he takes in the sense of Cit, a dynamic consciousness which carries Śakti within itself. The unity of Cit-Śakti, is then not only passive awareness, but also dynamic power, and as such, at least potentially, a true centre of perfect, divine individuality and action.
Focus on the dynamic Divine, and thus on Integrality.
Sri Aurobindo’s growing realisation of, and interest in the active, dynamic aspect of the Divine had major consequences for the system of yoga and for the psychology he developed. The reason for this is that, when one strives for a merger with the silent, absolute transcendence, there is no need for a drastic, total transformation of one’s nature: all that is needed is to quieten and purify one’s nature sufficiently to be able to leave it behind. There are many ways to do this, all making a specialised use of a few useful properties of some specific aspect of human nature. To achieve the ultimate silence, all one needs to do is to choose one of these specialised techniques and follow it trough systematically. If one aims, however, at an active identification with the Divine, then a full transformation of one’s entire nature is essential. In this case, one needs to deal with every aspect of one’s nature, and to follow one single path or school is not enough; one needs all the knowledge and expertise one can lay hold on. A comprehensive and integral synthesis of all paths and schools is then essential, and this is what Sri Aurobindo has tried to accomplish in his integral yoga and in his integral psychology.
The world as a progressive manifestation of the Divine
In line with the Vedic tradition, Sri Aurobindo takes consciousness to be an inherent element, if not the very essence, of all that exists. Some of the later darśanas (schools of Indian Philosophy) hold that consciousness is inherently pure and separate from the manifest world. In these views, the manifestation is seen as a māyā-induced “imposition” on, or distortion of the pure consciousness of Brahman. In the Vedas and early Upaniṣads, there is, however, plenty of support for a more integral conceptualisation of consciousness, in which the world is not seen as an imposition, but as a direct, though as yet incomplete, manifestation of divine consciousness.
Within this material plane, the evolution then slowly begins to take place, following material processes, but guided at every major transition by the hidden inner knowledge that is “deposited” at every level during the involution. Much of our pain and suffering is due to the half-baked nature of our consciousness during this slow evolution out of an initial ignorance, which can be redeemed fully only in the next step where the evolution begins to become a conscious movement “from light to greater light.”
Consciousness: physicalist and spiritual approaches
For his understanding of what consciousness is, Sri Aurobindo goes again back to the earliest, and most authoritative sources: the Ṛg Veda and the older Upaniṣads. Accordingly, he takes consciousness as the translation of the Sanskrit cit (as in sat-cit-ānanda), which is the original, absolute Consciousness of which all smaller forms of consciousness are derived. This has major consequences, because cit is not only awareness, but also Force: cit implies cit-śakti (or cit-tapas). Moreover, in line with the Ṛg Veda and with Upaniṣads like the Aitareya (2.2.2-3), consciousness is then seen to exist in many gradations and types, in a somewhat similar manner, as there are many varieties of light. It is thus the consciousness in things which determines their name and form, and it is the consciousness in things (or rather beings), which, when sufficiently developed, is responsible for their sense of identity.
It is not, however, that the entire Indian tradition looks at the meaning of the word consciousness in this manner. Together with the tendency to look at creation not any longer as a manifestation of the Divine but as an illusion imposed on the Divine, came the idea that the only true form of consciousness is a silent consciousness, one with the Divine only in its aspect of absolute, formless transcendence. Accordingly yoga is then described as a way to enter into that absolute silence, to merge back into the infinite; “not to be reborn” and mukti in the later sense of liberation from all forms of manifest existence become the end-goal of yoga and life. However, as said before, this not how the Indian tradition began.
Sri Aurobindo had the experience on which the māyāvādin philosophy is based early in his sādhanā. He entered into a state in which only the Absolute was true, and the whole manifestation looked like an empty imposition without inherent truth or value. But for Aurobindo this was only the beginning, and this first realisation gradually morphed into another one, in which the Divine was seen in everything.1b. As Sri Aurobindo began to probe deeper into the original texts of the Indian tradition, he realised that the exclusive spirituality, in which the world and the spirit are seen as irreconcilable opposites, was an, at least for Indian standards, recent development. In the Ṛg Veda, which has the highest authority in the Indian tradition, the aim is only liberation from ignorance, not from life: the aim of the Ṛg Veda and the earlier Upaniṣads was not escape from rebirth, but “Truth, Light and Immortality” (Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad — I.iii.28). The Gītā, which according to modern scholarship was written around 500 BC, just after the life of the Buddha, still has the wider ambit of the older texts: it systematically points at realities beyond the mental dualities. It still recognises the Purushottama as a greater truth, which is neither limited to the kshara, the moving reality, not to the akshara, the imperishable, but which is beyond the duality of kshara and akshara altogether. In short, it is only in later times that mukti gets the exclusive sense of a complete and irreversible release out of creation itself.
Psychologically, it is not difficult to understand that in Indian philosophy the stress on a pure, silent consciousness has increased over time. Philosophers tend to look for the abstract, the impersonal, and the ultimate abstraction is silence, emptiness. But there is also a more pragmatic reason that makes the passive Divine easier to reach in jnana and even in raja yoga than the dynamic. If one tries to reach the Divine by a purely mental effort, it is the silent, immutable Absolute that is the easiest to reach: to find it, one needs only to dissociate one’s consciousness from absolutely all content. This is not easy, and the demands it makes on mental discipline may make this approach to the Divine inaccessible to many, but it is still much easier than to have almost any level of identification with the dynamic Divine. In the language of the Sāṁkhya, one could say that to identify with the passive, silent Divine involves only the centre of one’s being, the puruṣa; one needs not make any major change to one’s nature, the prakṛti side of one’s being. As one’s nature is not involved, it needs to be purified only to the extent that it does not interfere with one's quest to reach the centre. To realise the dynamic Divine is far more difficult, as it requires a radical transformation of all those parts of one’s nature that are involved in the action. One might well argue that to identify with the whole of the Divine’s dynamism is for this reason not possible at all, and it is hardly surprising that even more limited achievements in this direction were considered impossible.
Still, in one of the most highly regarded Upaniṣads, the Īśā, there is already a specific warning against those whose aim is too other-worldly. It says explicitly, “Those who look only for avidyā (relative knowledge, ignorance) are (obviously) in darkness, but those who seek only for vidyā (knowledge of the absolute) are in an even greater darkness!”
Interestingly, the tendency towards an increasingly exclusive concentration on the spirit in the later Indian systems mirrors in some ways the manner in which mainstream Western science over time seems to have become more and more physicalist. In the West too, there have been mystics and idealist philosophers, but in present-day discourse, as we see, for example, in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, the primacy of matter is so much taken for granted, that monism is implicitly understood to mean the monism of matter. Accordingly, it is now mainstream to take consciousness as no more than an epiphenomenon of the physical processes in the nervous system. In the Indian tradition, on the other hand, monism has always been understood to mean a monism of consciousness. Here everything is ultimately nothing but brahman or saccidānanda, and the part of reality that later became most open to doubt was not spirit, or subjective existence, but the outer physical world.
Sri Aurobindo realised that neither the exclusive spirituality of the later Indian systems, nor the exclusive materiality of mainstream science would be sufficient to understand the manifestation as a whole and the direction in which he thought the evolution would go. Science is broad and rigorous within its limits, but not deep enough: ontologically its materialism leaves out too large a part of reality, and its methodological stress on objectivity stands in the way of rigorous knowledge of more subtle aspects of reality. Traditional spirituality is lacking equally, by its disregard for the material pole of reality. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in August 1914 (LD, p. 11):
In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, – or of some of them, – it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world’s powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
What Sri Aurobindo was looking for was a true integration.
Integrality and the dynamic Divine
In modern literature, the word integrality is used in many different ways, sometimes meaning hardly more than amalgamation or complete collection. In the context of spirituality and yoga, it is for example often taken as a simple crossbreed of various schools of mysticism, as a pragmatic blend of psychoanalysis and yoga, or as a happy mix of spirituality and materialism. Sri Aurobindo takes the word more seriously. He uses it as the translation of the Sanskrit word purna, and stresses that for a true integration the contributing elements need to be put together in a higher order system. We know from his Record of Yoga and from his letters that he only gradually realised that to find the principle that was genuinely beyond both matter and spirit, he had to go further than anybody he knew had gone. Anything short of this, he realised, would either leave the ultimate spirit with a tinge of “epiphenomenalism”, or leave matter surrounded by a sense of mithyā, unreality. He needed a level of conscious existence that was on the one hand undisputable one with the Divine in its ultimate perfection and purity, and that on the other hand would allow differentiation and manifestation. In other words he needed a definite, concrete reality beyond the division between puruṣa and prakriti, and even beyond the union of Shiva-Shakti, as envisaged in the Tantra, because even the latter are generally taken as a means for escape, as a step towards mokṣa, not as a step towards a perfect, divine manifestation. To find the real basis for such a complete integration, the knowledge of the later schools and commentaries was clearly not enough. As already indicated earlier, he had to go back to the earliest texts of the Indian tradition (and possibly of humanity) the Ṛg Veda.
A psychological synthesis of the different systems of yoga
As part of his attempt at developing a new integral yoga of self-perfection, Sri Aurobindo started with a broad synthesis of the many different methods used by the Indian tradition. For this he was not so much interested in the outer expressions of the various schools, which would be difficult to combine or amalgamate in any case, but in the psychological processes underlying these outer forms. On the basis of his own experience he came to the conclusion that anything that can be done through outer means or methods, can also, and better, be achieved directly through the power of the mental and higher forms of consciousness. And so he saw the vast number of specialised rituals and techniques more as unnecessary limitations than as essential supports. Instead he tried to find the basic psychological processes underlying the various methods of yoga, and combine these into one large and flexible system, consisting of basic psychological principles and processes, but not limited to any specific form or method. It is this work that led to the incredibly rich and powerful system of psychological knowledge and know-how to which Infinity in a Drop aspires to be an introduction.
The evolving soul or "psychic being" at the centre of individual development
The details of Sri Aurobindo's "integral psychology" will be given in the following chapters and need not be outlined here, but there is one core issue I would like at least to mention, because Sri Aurobindo's position differs here in a subtle but rather important way from those of almost all other schools of Indian spirituality. This is the nature of the individual and his position in the manifestation as a whole.
There are many different ways in which humans experience the Divine. They differ in basic colour or type, in intensity, as well as in what one could describe as nearness, or intimacy. While for most of us there is a certain degree of otherness to the Divine, fear of God doesn't play a large role in the Indian spiritual traditions and ultimately our highest Self is recognised as fully one with the Divine. In the more intellectual, philosophical approaches to Indian spirituality, this identity doesn't stretch, however, towards all aspects and forms of the Divine. The oneness is there only in the most abstract, pure, transcendent aspect of the Divine. This is related to the idea that all form and movement belongs to the transient outer world, while what we really are is only a pure, silent consciousness (or not even that, as in the Buddhist doctrine of no-self). For Sri Aurobindo the manifest world is as Divine as the Silence. And so our self, even our highest, most ultimate Self consists of two centres: an eternal, unchanging Self "above", the jīvātman, and another centre "within", which forms the core of our manifest, incarnate being. According to Sri Aurobindo, the latter begins as a tiny spark of the Divine, which he calls the psychic entity, which then gradually, over many life-times, grows into a full-fledged "psychic being", which includes besides this centre of consciousness, also the growing portion of the inner and outer nature that gets transformed under its influence. More detail will be given in the relevant section of the chapter "The Self and the structure of the personality", but the idea of an evolving soul deserves mention here as it adds a whole new dimension to psychology, especially regarding individual differences and the meaning and purpose of life.
As we will see, much of the psychological knowledge that follows in the rest of this text is part of the common core of the Indian tradition, some of it we can find as well in other spiritual traditions, and certain aspects of it have been speculated about or confirmed by modern psychology. But all of it is seen from Sri Aurobindo's inspiring perspective of an on-going evolution of consciousness and joy, [REF] which gives to psychology and our human lives a deep and satisfying meaning and purpose.
Summary and conclusion
To the physical senses on which mainstream science basis itself, life and mind seem to evolve gradually out of unconscious matter through a purely mechanical process. According to the later philosophical and spiritual traditions in India, the world has the appearance of an Overmental creation rooted irretrievably in ignorance and suffering. In Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis both theories appear as partial truths. The former describes the outer mechanism of the evolution in matter, but misses out on its inner meaning and the role of consciousness in the whole process. The latter describes the manifestation of the material universe out of an intermediate layer of consciousness but misses out on the dynamic link between the manifestation and the divine consciousness itself.(9b) The two views cover different aspects of the picture. As such they don’t contradict but enrich and complement each other. Sri Aurobindo adds to the synthesis of these two theories, the suggestion that if one superimposes the Vedic concept of different types of consciousness on the Western idea of evolution, one can but conclude that humanity represents only an intermediate stage of evolution, that in due time, higher forms of consciousness are bound to evolve, and that ultimately even a truly Gnostic, Supramental consciousness should become possible right here, embodied in matter.
All this may seem rather philosophical, speculative and far removed from our daily lives, and this might have been, if this had been all, but it isn't. The philosophical considerations sketched in this chapter are only the foundation, the background against which Sri Aurobindo did his work in the field of yoga. And as he considered yoga the specialised use of general psychological principles, his writings contain a true goldmine of insights and practical know-how about human nature and how to change it. And there is nothing speculative about this side of his work. We know from his laboratory notes (the Record of Yoga), his letters, his autobiographical poetry [ADD REFs] and the momentous changes he made while revising his earlier works in the later stages of his life [ADD FOOTNOTE], that he did not make claims about yoga and psychology gratuitously. He appears to have always rigorously checked whatever he wrote, whether in his own experience, or in his work with the disciples who over time gathered around him. Over the forty years Sri Aurobindo spent in Pondicherry, he worked out with stunning precision, detail, depth and comprehensiveness the psychological structures, attitudes and processes involved in the radical changes he envisaged. And it is this work in the field of psychology that this text is about. A deeply loved teacher of mine[ADD FOOTNOTE] used to say that the more he read Sri Aurobindo's writings the more he realised that they were Handbooks, user guides for life and our little roles in it. It is in this spirit, that this text looks at the main concerns of psychology in the light of Sri Aurobindo's work.
1a,b. To get some idea about his early realisations, one could consult the short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix. For his later self-discoveries there are besides his prose works, his poems and especially Savitri.
2. It may be noted that mukti in later Vedantic writings does not mean anymore, as in the older Vedic literature, liberation only from ignorance, but liberation from manifest existence as such.
3. It might well be this living sense of having touched an Absolute Truth – which, in spite of its absoluteness, is still limited to only one aspect of the Truth – that forms the psychological basis of the frequent conflicts between different religions.
For references to the writings of Sri Aurobindo, see the list of abbreviations in Appendix 3-1
Aurobindo, Sri (1953/1991), Letters on Yoga. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Cornelissen, Matthijs (2004), “Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness”, in Consciousness, Indian Psychology and Yoga (2004), Joshi, Kireet & Cornelissen, Matthijs (ed.), volume XI, part 3 of D.P. Chattopadhyaya (ed.), History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. New Delhi: Centre for the Study of Civilizations.
Heehs, Peter. (2008). The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. New York (NY): Columbia University Press.
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