November 27, 2005

The Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo

Winston Michael R.
Sri Aurobindo's ideas are difficult to place in categories derived from European philosophy and religion, since he is part of the Indian tradition which does not recognize a significant distinction between the two. Moreover, throughout the thirty-odd volumes that he wrote, he used, as one would expect, the technical language of Indian spiritual speculation, which continues to be a barrier to Westerners unfamiliar with the many layers of meaning and usage that have accumulated over the centuries in the various schools of Indian thought.
It would be wrong to think of Sri Aurobindo as a philosopher in the Western sense, though he was well acquainted with much of the Western philosophical tradition from his British education and his later reading. It would also be wrong to think of him as a conventional Indian "holy man," even though many in India regarded him as not only the most accomplished Yogi of his time, but also as the Avatar of a new age. It should also be added that it is misleading to think of him as primarily a "Hindu thinker." As one commentator on his work has pointed out: So-called "Hinduism" is an invention of the West; the Indian speaks only of "the eternal law," sanatana dharma, which he knows is not an Indian monopoly.
But I find equally unconvincing the attempt of some commentators to place Aurobindo in the systematic tradition of Western philosophy. McDermott, for example, maintains that in "its philosophic comprehensiveness, Sri Aurobindo's philosophy finds its contemporary Western analogue among the systematic thinkers--Royce, Bergson, Whitehead, and Heidegger; in its spiritual and autobiographic quality, it more closely resembles Kierkegaard and Buber, and perhaps Heidegger and Wittgenstein."[9]
Such a comparison, in my judgment, distorts by the very analogy that is intended to be helpful, since Aurobindo was clear that he was not developing a system for the sake of philosophical analysis or even constructing what one might strictly call a philosophical system. He believed himself to be engaged in a spiritual inquiry with the aim of making clear the weaknesses of current thinking about conflicts between the spiritual quest and functionalist materialism, and opening a new pathway for humanity.
The system, such as it is, is in reality no more than a clearing away of conceptual barriers to new ways of seeing the relationship of man to the natural environment and to the nonmaterial aspects of existence. He frequently finds a reasonable basis for recognizing that what appears to be inconsistent is actually compatible, or merely different aspects of the same reality, by recognizing subtle differentiations within expanded, more complex contexts. This is not dissimilar, as he said, from the actual methods of practicing scientists, as distinguished from the crude claims of scientism. In the history of science, conceptual progress has often derived from the recognition of analytical categories that were more complex yet more unifying than earlier conceptions.
During Aurobindo's lifetime this happened in physics, as the categories of Newtonian mechanics were found to be valid for one level of physical phenomena, but not for physical phenomena at the level of the atomic particle. Aurobindo was aware, it appears, of the new physics of Werner Heisenberg, the work of Arthur Eddington in relativity and quantum theory, and of James Jeans on radiation. In the years since, the conceptual categories that divided the biological and physical sciences, for example, have been supplanted by an entirely new understanding of the interdigitation of chemical, electrical, and physical processes. We take for granted disciplines such as biophysics or molecular biology in which old boundaries of thought have been supplanted by a greater unity of conception that recognizes increasingly the underlying interconnectedness of physical and biological processes once thought entirely separate.

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