WRITINGS BY SRI AUROBINDO
© Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

The three purushas

The greatest of all the philosophical problems which human thought has struggled to solve, is the exact nature and relation to us of the conscious Intelligence in the phenomenal existence around. The idealist denies the phenomenal existence, the materialist denies the conscious Intelligence. To the former, phenomenon is a passing shadow on the luminous calm of the single universal Spirit: to the latter, intelligence is a temporary result of the motions of Matter. The idealist can give no satisfactory explanation of the existence of the shadow; he admits that it is inexplicable, a thing that is and yet is not: the materialist can give no satisfactory explanation of the existence of intelligence; he simply tries to trace the stages of its development and the methods of its workings, and covers over the want of an explanation by the abundant minuteness of his observations. But the soul of Man, looking out and in, is satisfied neither with Shankara nor with Haeckel. It sees the universal existence of phenomena, it sees the universal existence of Intelligence. It seeks a term which will admit both, cover both, identify both; it demands, not an elimination of either, but a reconcilement.

The Upanishads do not deny the reality of the world, but they identify it with Brahman who transcends it. He is the One without a second; He is the All. If all is Brahman, then there can be nothing but Brahman, and therefore the existence of the All, sarvam idam, does not contradict the unity of Brahman, does not establish the reality of bheda, difference. It is one Intelligence looking at itself from a hundred view-points, each point conscious of and enjoying the existence of the others. The shoreless stream of idea and thought, imagination and experience, name and form, sensation and vibration sweeps onward for ever, without beginning, without end, rising into view, sinking out of sight; through it the one Intelligence with its million self-expressions pours itself abroad, an ocean with innumerable waves. One particular self-expression may disappear into its source and continent, but that does not and cannot abolish the phenomenal universe. The One is for ever, and the Many are for ever because the One is for ever. So long as there is a sea, there will be waves.

In the oceanic stir and change of universal Nature the soul or Purusha is the standing-point, stable, unmoving, unchanging, eternal,—nityaḥ sarvagataḥ sthāṇur acalo’yaṁ sanātanaḥ. In the whole, the Purusha or soul is one, — there is One Spirit which supports the stir of the Universe, not many. In the individual the One Purusha has three stages of personality; He is One, but triple, trivṛt. The Upanishads speak of two birds on one tree, of which one eats the fruit of the tree, the other, seated on a higher branch, does not eat but watches its fellow; one is īś́a or lord of itself, the other is anīś́a, not lord of itself, and it is when the eater looks up and perceives the greatness of the watcher and fills himself with it that grief, death, subjection, — in one word mā̄yā̄, ignorance and illusion, ceases to touch him. There are two unborn who are male and one unborn who is female; she is the tree with its sweet and bitter fruit, the two are the birds. One of the unborn enjoys her sweetness, the other has put it away from him. These are the two Purushas, the akṣara, or immutable spirit, and the kṣara, or apparently mutable, and the tree or woman is Prakriti, universal Energy which the Europeans call Nature. The kṣara puruṣa is the soul in Nature and enjoying Nature, the akṣara puruṣa is the soul above Nature and watching her. But there is One who is not seated on the tree but occupies and possesses it, who is not only lord of Himself, but lord of all that is: He is higher than the kṣara, higher than the akṣara, He is Purushottama, the Soul one with God, with the All.

These three Purushas are described in the fifteenth chapter of the Gita. “There are two Purushas in the world, the akṣara and the kṣara, — the kṣara is all creatures, the akṣara is called kūṭastha, the one on the summit. There is another Purusha, the highest (uttama), called also the Paramatma or Supreme Spirit, who enters into the three worlds, (the worlds of suṣupti, svapna, jā̄grat, otherwise the causal, mental and physical planes of existence), and sustains them as their imperishable lord.” And in the thirteenth chapter, while drawing the distinction between the lower Purusha and the higher, Sri Krishna defines more minutely the relations of God and the individual soul to Nature. “Prakriti is the basic source of cause, effect and agency; the Purusha, of the sense of enjoyment of happiness and grief; for it is the soul in Nature (Purusha in Prakriti) that enjoys the threefold workings of things caused by Nature, (the play of conservation, creation and destruction; reception, reaction and resistance; illumination, misconception and obscuration; calm, work and inertia; all being different manifestations of three fundamental forces called the gunas or essential properties of Prakriti), and it is the attachment of the soul to the gunas that is the cause of births in bodies good and evil. The highest Purusha in this body is the one who watches, who sanctions, who enjoys, who upholds, who is the mighty Lord and the Supreme Soul.”

The personality of the Supreme Soul is universal, not individual. Whatever is in all creatures, character, idea, imagination, experience, sensation, motion, is contained by Him as an object of spiritual enjoyment without limiting or determining Him. He is all things at once. Such a universality is necessary to support and supply individual existence, but it cannot be the determining limit of individual existence. Something has to be reserved, something put forward, and this partial manifestation is the individual. “It is verily an eternal part of Me that in the world of individual existence becomes the Jiva or individual.” The Jiva or individual is kṣara puruṣa, and between him and the Supreme stands the akṣara puruṣa, the bird on the summit of the tree, joyous in his own bliss, undisturbed by the play of Nature, impartially watching it, receiving its images on his calm immovable existence without being for a moment bound or affected, eternally self-gathered, eternally free. This akṣara puruṣa is our real self, our divine unity with God, our inalienable . freedom from that which is transient and changing. If it did not exist, there would be no escape from the bondage of life and death, joy and grief, sin and virtue; we should be prisoners in a cage without a door, beating our wings against the bars in vain for an exit; life and death, joy and grief, sin and virtue would be eternal, ineffugable realities, not temporary rules determining the great game of life, and we should be unwilling actors, not free playmates of God able to suspend and renew the game when we will. It is by realising our oneness with the akṣara puruṣa that we get freedom from ignorance, freedom from the cords of desire, freedom from the imperative law of works. On the other hand if the akṣara puruṣa were all, as the Sankhya philosophy contends, there would be no basis for different experience, no varying personality, every individual existence would be precisely like every other individual existence, the development and experience of one soul in Nature an exact replica of the development and experience of another soul. It is the kṣara puruṣa who is all creatures, and the variety of experience, character and development is effected by a particular part of the universal swabhava or nature of conscious existence in phenomena being attached to a particular individual or Jiva. This is what is meant by saying that it is a part of God which becomes the Jiva. This swabhava, once determined, does not change; but it manifests various parts of itself, at various times, under various circumstances, in various forms of action and various bodies suited to the action or development it has to enjoy. It is for this reason that the Purusha in Nature is called kṣara, fluid, shifting, although it is not in reality fluid . or shifting, but constant, eternal and immutable, sanā̄tana. It is the variety of its enjoyment in Time, Space and Causality that makes it kṣara. The enjoyment of the akṣara puruṣa is self-existent, beyond Time, Space and Causality, aware of but undisturbed by the continual multitudinous flux and reflux of Prakriti. The enjoyment of Purushottama is both in Prakriti and beyond it, it embraces and is the reality of all experience and enjoyment.

Development is determined by the kṣara puruṣa, but not conducted by him. It is Prakriti, the Universal Energy, that conducts development under the law of cause and effect, and is the true agent. The soul is not the agent, but the lord who enjoys the results of the action of his agent, Prakriti or Nature; only by his attachment to Prakriti he forgets himself and identifies himself with her so as to have the illusion of agency and, by thus forgetting himself, ceases to be lord of himself, becomes subject to Causality, imprisoned in Time and Space, bound by the work which he sanctions. He himself, being a part of God, is made in His image, of one nature with Him. Therefore what God is, he also is, only with limitation, subject to Time, Space and Causality, because he has, of his own will, accepted that bondage. He is the witness, and if he ceased to watch, the drama would stop. He is the source of sanction, and what he declares null and void, drops away from the development. He is the enjoyer, and if he became indifferent, that individual development would be arrested. He is the upholder, and if he ceased to sustain the ādhā̄ra, the vehicle, it would fall and cease. He is the lord, and it is for his pleasure that Nature acts. He is the spirit, and matter is only his vehicle, his robe, his means of self-expression. But all his sanctions, refusals, behests act not at once, not there and then, not by imperative absolute compulsion, but subject to lapse of time, change of place, working of cause to effect. The lapse may be brief or long, a moment or centuries; the change small or great, here or in another world; the working direct or indirect, with the rapid concentration of processes which men call a miracle or with the careful and laboured evolution in which every step is visibly ordered and deliberate; but so long as the Jiva is bound, his lordship is limited and constitutional, not despotic and absolute. His sanction and signature are necessary, but it is the Lords spiritual and temporal of his mind and body, the Commons in his external environment who do the work of the State, execute, administer, legislate.

The first step in self-liberation is to get rid of the illusion of agency, to realise that Nature acts, not the soul. The second is to remove the siege of phenomenal associations by surrendering lordship to God, leaving Him alone to uphold and sanction by the abdication of one’s own independent use of these powers, offering up the privilege of the enjoyer to Him. All that is then left is the attitude of the akṣara puruṣa, the free, blissful self-existence, watching the action of Prakriti, but outside it. The kṣara withdraws into the akṣara. When the sākṣī or witness withdraws into God Himself, that is the utter liberation.

Essays on Philosophy and Yoga, pp. 51-56

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