January 15, 2006

Tantra and Transcendentalism – Emerson and Aurobindo

Tantra and Transcendentalism – The Philosophies of Emerson and Aurobindo by Robert C. Gordon, PhD A Presentation to the 13th International Congress of Vedanta, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, September 12-15, 2002
At roughly the time that Columbus set sail in search of a western passage to India, a newly awakened life force began to flow in humanity. That force was the Humanistic Revolution. Humanism celebrated the dignity of the human being and the essential value of life in the world. Basing itself on the classic literature of Greece and Rome rather than Biblical revelation, Humanism rejected Christianity's doctrine of original sin, affirmed human nature, and praised the human condition. Its life-affirming attitudes and focus on individualism and individual achievement inspired the European Renaissance, the birth of modern science, the age of exploration, the rise of democracy, and rapid economic and social development. The three essential characteristics of the Humanistic Revolution are:
  • A. A spirit of questing individualism
  • B. World-Affirmation
  • C. Open-Ended Truth that is, the questioning of all given knowledge in the light of new ideas and new facts. As William James would say, "Truth is in the making."

The heart of my presentation is that Emerson and Aurobindo were both deeply influenced by the spirit of Humanism, and sought to develop new approaches to the spiritual life that were in harmony with the Humanistic Revolution. They recognized that if we want to be both Humanist and spiritual, we must find a form of religion that is at once individualistic, world-affirmative, and open-ended. Thus American Transcendentalism arose in the West to meet this need, while in the East developed the Purnadvaita or integral non-dualism of Sri Aurobindo.

However, Emerson and Aurobindo were not the first to create a spirituality in harmony with these key Humanistic principles. That distinction goes to the ancient wisdom of Tantra. Tantra challenges the ascetic renunciation and world rejection of early Buddhism and the Upanishads, offering an entirely different approach to the spiritual life. Instead of rejecting the world, Tantrics seek to achieve moksha or Enlightenment through joyful enjoyment of the world.

Tantra uses bhoga or enjoyment as a yoga or spiritual path by means of sadhana: the process of physical, mental, and moral purification achieved through self-control, discipline, and worship. Sadhana transforms the aspirant's consciousness from ignorance into Enlightenment. Thus the essence of Tantra is captured in this formula: sadhana (a new mindset which inspires new behavior) transforms bhoga (the enjoyments of earthly experience) into yoga (a path of Enlightenment), and the adept into a spiritual hero.

In their spirit of life affirmation, the Tantrics define the ultimate religious goal differently than do classical Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics. In Tantra, the goal of the spiritual life is not to achieve Liberation and transcend the world. Rather, it is to achieve Enlightenment while still embodied, generating a magical perfection of behavior in complete harmony with the world of everyday. The Tantric goal is not to ascend to Heaven or be liberated from earthly experience. Rather it is to achieve perfect harmonious action in the world of here and now through submission to divine will.

According to Tantra, all of creation is the lila or cosmic play of the Goddess Kali. Nature is Her effulgent shakti, not inconscient prakriti or illusory maya. As such, the manifest realm of name and form is pure divine shakti under the guidance of Kali's cosmic will. Through submission to the Dark Mother's cosmic will, the Tantric hero achieves perfect harmony with nature and mastery of the universe. When Her cosmic will reinforces the hero's formerly contracted and ego-driven will, the hero achieves perfect harmony with all of creation, and simultaneously attains the Supreme Experience of the changeless Lord Shiva who underlies and yet remains unaffected by Kali's realm of name and form. The hero experiences, resolves, and unifies the Cosmic Male and Female: changeless Shiva and creative Kali, generating perfect cosmic harmony and balance.

Although Emerson and Aurobindo started from very different beginning points in their respective traditions, both created metaphysical systems that are remarkably similar to ancient Tantra. Let us now explore the Tantric affinities between Aurobindo and Emerson by identifying what I take to be the eight basic metaphysical principles they hold in common.

Emerson and Aurobindo agree that all is finally resolvable into a single, unifying divine principle. Emerson referred to this ultimate reality as "that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other," while Aurobindo used the term Brahman, which of course has a long and venerable history in Indian philosophy.


  1. Sir,

    Want 2 know more about "unity' what is that way in modern times for humanity 2 unify as conceived by sri aurobindo? did he give the way for that unified world?

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