The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.
A key to Sri Aurobindo's “psycho-cosmology”
It had been intended to hold this afternoon's session in the garden of Savitri Bhavan, the institution I am associated with. But unexpected blessings from the Rain Gods have made us shift here to a more sheltered position. The building we are sitting in is the Sri Aurobindo World Centre for Human Unity. It was built with funds received from the Indian Government in connection with the 125th Birth Anniversary celebrations for Sri Aurobindo. It is intended to serve as the seed of a centre for Higher Studies and Research in the light of the vision and teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. So it is very appropriate that we should be here together this afternoon, and I would like to add my own thanks to the appreciation that has already been expressed to the organisers and participants of this Conference. I have found all the presentations stimulating and valuable, and in what I have to say you are likely to hear some echoes of topics that have been raised by various speakers over the last days.
As you perhaps know, one aspect of the Mother's vision of Auroville was that of a “Universe-City”, a township essentially devoted to unending education, constant progress, both individual and collective. So far we have been able to build up a number of schools of different kinds, serving different target groups of children and youngsters; and there have been a wide variety of opportunities for informal adult education. But a need is now being felt for more established resources and structures to support on-going education, to interconnect the many researchers who are working independently here, and to enable constructive networking with other researchers and research institutions around the world who would be interested in knowing more about our experiences and in sharing their own with us. So a proposal is now being prepared for submission to the Government of India, to request support for setting up such an institution here. Within the context of that organisation, Savitri Bhavan will serve as the base for the faculty of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Studies, focusing especially on the core-areas of the teachings which lie at the basis of Auroville: the philosophy, psychology and yoga-practice of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
The Savitri Bhavan project has grown up over the last six years, out of the deep interest that many Aurovilians feel in Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri. Amongst all his many writings, the Mother has given a special place to this work, which she has characterised as “The supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo's vision”. As such, Savitri has been read in Auroville from the very earliest days, both individually and in groups. But in 1994, it was decided to start a Savitri Study Circle, which would meet not only to read but also to discuss and explore Savitri together. And to some of the people in the Circle there came the inspiration that there should be a place in Auroville which could become an inspiring centre of Savitri studies, housing all kinds of materials and activities to enrich our understanding and enjoyment of Sri Aurobindo's revelatory epic, and above all, to have a very special atmosphere. For learning and research in Auroville is meant to be not purely academic and intellectual. Intellectual learning has its place and value, but here we would like to place even more emphasis on experiential learning and research—experiences that can really lead to a change of consciousness. That is the aim of Savitri Bhavan—it means “The Abode of Savitri”—which is open not only to Aurovilians but to everyone, from wherever they come, who has an interest in Savitri and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. And we are fortunate that this project has won the blessings and support of some of those most closely associated with them—for example Dr. Nirodbaran, Sri Aurobindo's scribe for Savitri; Amal Kiran, the poet-disciple to whom Sri Aurobindo wrote a number of letters explaining his intentions and methods in creating Savitri ; and Huta, the young woman whom the Mother trained to work with her on illustrating Savitri , and who has allowed us access to uniquely illuminating materials connected with their 18-year long collaboration.
As coordinator for the educational activities of the Bhavan, I have been invited to make a presentation to you. I am not a psychologist, but a lay-person with a long-standing interest in psychology, which, as we have been reminded in the last days, Sri Aurobindo defined as “the science of consciousness”. And I speak to you today as a follower of Sri Aurobindo and a child of the Mother. I shall be using their terminology and speaking from that standpoint because I am not competent to do anything else—and because I feel this is really the most useful thing I can do. I shall try to give you a small taste of some of the unique materials that have been entrusted to our care.
The title of my presentation perhaps requires a little explanation: Savitri as a Key to Sri Aurobindo's psycho-cosmology. “Psycho-cosmology” is my own coinage—a kind of shorthand term for what forms the conceptual basis of our research here—a basis which to Sri Aurobindo himself was of course not “conceptual”, but experienced. This coinage evokes two aspects that are of cardinal importance in Sri Aurobindo's message. While he has explored and revealed the complexities of individual psychology with unprecedented completeness, he has at the same time linked our individual psychology with an explanation of the workings of the universe, giving the human individual a meaningful position in the cosmos.
At the beginning of Book Two of Savitri the protagonist, King Aswapati, the father of Savitri, has a vision of the many planes of consciousness rising like one of the temple towers that we see here in South India, with many levels, each peopled with their own beings, animals and houses, rising one above the other up into the sky.
There, walled apart by its own innerness
In a mystical barrage of dynamic light
He saw a lone immense high-curved world-pile
Erect like a mountain-chariot of the Gods
Motionless under an inscrutable sky.
As if from matter's plinth and viewless base
To a top as viewless, a carved sea of worlds
Climbing with foam-maned waves to the Supreme
Ascended towards breadths immeasureable;
It hoped to soar into the Ineffable's reign:
A hundred levels raised it to the Unknown.
So it towered up to heights intangible
And disappeared in the hushed conscious Vast
As climbs a storeyed temple-tower to heaven
Built by the aspiring soul of man to live
Near to his dream of the Invisible.
Infinity calls to it as it dreams and climbs;
Its spire touches the apex of the world;
Mounting into great voiceless stillnesses
It marries the earth to screened eternities.
Amid the many systems of the One
Made by an interpreting creative joy
Alone it points us to our journey back
Out of our long self-loss in Nature's deeps;
Planted on earth it holds in it all realms:
It is a brief compendium of the Vast.
This was the single stair to being's goal.
A summary of the stages of the spirit
Its copy of the cosmic hierarchies
Refashioned in our secret air of self
A subtle pattern of the universe.
This Canto is entitled “The World-Stair”.
Its steps are paces of the soul's return
From the deep adventure of material birth,
A ladder of delivering ascent
And rungs that Nature climbs to deity.
This refers to the evolutionary process up out of Matter to higher levels of consciousness. But before this process began, there was an involution, of consciousness into the Inconscient:
Once in the vigil of a deathless gaze
These grades had marked her giant downward plunge,
The wide a prone leap of a godhead's fall.
Elsewhere, this cosmic hierarchy of planes is described similarly:
Ascending and descending twixt life's poles
The seried kingdoms of the graded Law
Plunged from the Everlasting into Time,
Then glad of a glory of multitudinous mind
And rich with life's adventure and delight
And packed with the beauty of Matter's shapes and hues
Climbed back from Time into undying Self,
Up a golden ladder carying the soul,
Tying with diamond threads the Spirit's extremes.
In this drop from consciousness to consciousness
Each leaned on the occult Inconscient's power,
The fountain of its needed Ignorance,
Archmason of the limits by which it lives.
In this soar from consciousness to consciousness
Each lifted tops to That from which it came,
Origin of all that it had ever been
And home of all that it could still become. (p. 88-89)
We can see something of this in one of the many illustrations which the Mother prepared for Savitri . This drawing was made around 1964 or 65, when the Mother was working with a young woman in the Ashram, Huta, on a project of illustrating selected passages from Savitri. The Mother herself was a very accomplished artist. She studied art in Paris in the 1880s. Her first husband was a painter, and she personally knew many of the famous names of that time, including Monet, Rodin, and Rouault. She encouraged many artists in the Ashram, and she told Huta that she was training her for a new kind of painting that would be able to express subtler levels of consciousness. The Mother herself has explained how they worked, saying:
Savitri, this prophetic vision of the world's history, including the announcement of the earth's future,—Who can ever dare to put it in pictures?
Yet, the Mother and Huta have tried it, this way. “We simply meditate together on the lines chosen, and when the image becomes clear, I describe it with the help of a few strokes, then Huta goes to her studio and brushes the painting.”
It is in a meditative mood that these “meditations” must be looked at to find the feeling they contain behind their appearance.
This particular picture is a diagram of twelve different planes of consciousness, from the Inconscient at the bottom, up through the body, life and mind planes, followed by the four planes of what Sri Aurobindo calls Higher Mind, then Overmind, the plane of the Gods, and above that the planes of Ananda, Chit-Tapas, and Sat, which mark the limit of the Manifestation. Beyond is the Unmanifest. When preparing this drawing as an aid to Huta the Mother explained to her that those who have intuited the Unmanifest have often spoken of it as “the Void”, and thought of it as empty. But, she said, it is not empty. It is in fact packed with potentiality. What Sri Aurobindo has done, she explained, is to go into that realm of unmanifest potentialities, to seize and bring down into the manifestation a completely new possibility—the Supermind, the principle of a New Creation.
The Mother explained too that she perceived these successive planes of existence as qualities of light, each with its distinctive colour. But expressing these qualities of light in pigment, in paint was not easy. Huta had to make many successive attempts before the Mother pronounced herself reasonably satisfied with the result.
These planes are levels of universal manifestation. But in the passage from Savitri which we have noted, Sri Aurobindo tells us that, through the involution, all of them have contributed to and become part of the earth we live on, and that they are accessible to human experience. Individually we can experience them in our innermost self, if we become aware enough; and eventually, through the process of evolution, the whole creation has to climb back up the stair of existence and recover its origin. So far we have attained only the Mind level. The best is all to come.
We may note several important points which follow from this vision of man's place in the cosmos:
— In Sri Aurobindo's world-view consciousness is primary. He has referred to Matter as “sense created mould of Spirit”. In fact each of these planes corresponds to a mode of consciousness, and a relation between what Indian philosophy refers to as Purusha and Prakriti, or Chit and Shakti ... conscious awareness, and the expressive force of that consciousness.
— The complementary relation of involution and evolution implies that evolution has direction and purpose. It is not just a chance configuration of original plasma that has somehow accidentally given rise to the anomalous appearance of organised Matter, burgeoning Life, and inexplicable Mind. These are the external signs of an inner drive towards ever more complex and delightful forms in which Spirit or Consciousness may express itself, experience itself, recognise and enjoy itself.
— Each individuality is a projection, a partial expression of some divine uniqueness, which in the involution becomes “ego”. Dr. George Matthew showed us the other day that as individuals we can be considered to be constantly co-existent on all planes from the Supreme to unconscious matter, and that the process of self-realisation means recovering identity with the Origin and Source of which we are projections. But Sri Aurobindo tells us that we do not have to lose our individuality when we re-attain the level of original consciousness. To do so we have to lose our distorted ego sense; but since our true Source is some quality of divine potentiality, we can choose to retain a true individuality for action in the world, even when united in consciousness with the Source.
— Evolution takes place, starting from the Inconscient, both individually, with the development of the psychic being, and generally in Nature, which manifests new forms, species, corresponding to the levels of consciousness generally attained; and both individual and group and Nature in general are equally expressions of the involved Divine. Everything in Nature, including inconscient Matter and every life-movement, is essentially divine, and can, when the process of evolution is complete, express the divine Will and Delight.
These points give Sri Aurobindo's world-vision its special dynamic and optimistic character. This “psycho-cosmology” is the consistent basis of all Sri Aurobindo's major writings. In his different books he has dealt with various areas of interest: English literature, Indian culture, world history, human society, and so on. In most of them he has spoken the language of the intellect, and set out to answer the human mind's need for rational conviction. This is because, from the individual point of view, any means which helps us to come into contact with our true individuality is helpful, and progressive from the evolutionary standpoint; in human beings, since the human race is representative of Mind in this evolutionary process, the intelligent will is “the priest of the sacrifice”.
But for most of us the intelligent will is driven not merely, not even primarily, by reason and intellect. All the other planes of being act on us too. Very dominant in our ordinary psychology are the vital or life planes. Their principle, though in us often distorted by ego and desire, is Delight. And the response to and quest for Beauty is one of the very powerful motives which can help to carry us beyond our limited ego-selves towards a wider and higher identification. In one of his aphorisms, Sri Aurobindo says,
If mankind could but see though in a glimpse of fleeting experience what infinite enjoyments, what perfect forces, what luminous reaches of spontaneous knowledge, what wide calms of our being lie waiting for us in the tracts which our animal evolution has not yet conquered, they would leave all and never rest till they had gained these treasures.
Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human, p. 423
Art and Beauty in all forms can be, and have been, ways of linking our ordinary human mentality with higher, intensified states.
While the Mother was a painter and musician, Sri Aurobindo was a poet. In the Essays on the Gita , he has contrasted the language of the Gita, which is designed to satisfy, he says, an intellectual difficulty, to that of the Upanishads with
... its free resort to image and symbol, its intuitive form of speech in which the hard limiting definiteness of intellectual utterance is broken down and the implications of words are allowed to roll out in an illimitable wave of suggestion ...
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, p. 264
in an attempt to evoke the highest spiritual truth, which can be lived, can be seen, but can only be partially suggested.
We can make a similar comparison between The Life Divine, which for many years was Sri Aurobindo's “best-seller”, and Savitri, which has overtaken it in popularity over the last decade or so. One gentleman expressed what many have confirmed, when he explained that while both works present intellectual difficulties, he found that the music and suggestive images of Savitri had a very remarkable effect on him, even though he felt that he was not understanding them. In fact they gave some glimpse of those future states lying ahead of us.
Sri Aurobindo in fact was aiming, as he has explained in The Future Poetry, for a level of linguistic expression that could be termed “mantric”. Since this theme was touched upon in an earlier session, I would like to conclude by adding a few reflections of my own on this topic.
That sound-waves have physical effects is now generally accepted and scientifically demonstrated. A moment's reflection will convince us that sound waves in the form of words can have powerful mental and emotional effects on human beings—and that these may lead to consequent physical effects. This applies whether the words are heard physically through the ear, or only subtly in the mind.
It therefore does not seem irrational to accept that sound waves in the form of mantra —words uttered with a conscious intent by a being who is in a heightened state of consciousness and possesses a capacity of powerful mental formation—may have effects on a hearer that extend to several different levels of consciousness—mental, vital, physical and “spiritual”.
For mantra-japa to have a lasting effect on the physical consciousness and the body, constant repetition over a long period may be needed. But many sensitive people can attest that simply hearing the Mother's voice reciting lines from Savitri can have a remarkable effect, that is at the very least both delightful and uplifting. So let us close by hearing a recording of her reading of a few of the lines quoted above, from Canto One of Book Two, accompanied by some music of the Ashram composer, Sunil Bhattacharya.