September 25, 2006

Sri Aurobindo’s concept of ‘knowledge’

Given the complexities concerning the nature and status of the concept of ‘knowledge’ in philosophy and indeed in the broader cultural sphere, it is pertinent to understand the concept in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s writings as His approach embraces the quintessence of most philosophic speculation on ‘knowledge’, both Indian and western. The Integral approach to knowledge assimilates the nuances of a number of philosophical schools and avoids obvious extremes found in many philosophical approaches to knowledge. For example, it is without the skepticism of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika school as also the exclusively causal and realistic slant in the Nyaya system. Indeed, His enunciation of the concept of ‘knowledge’, found in The Life Divine, can render redundant many a needless and inconsequential argument on the nature of knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo’s distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’, mentioned in the chapter ‘The Knowledge and the Ignorance’ of The Life Divine deserves to be quoted at length: “The distinction between the Knowledge and the Ignorance begins with the hymns of the Rig Veda. Here knowledge appears to signify a consciousness of the Truth, the Right, satyam rtam, and of all that is of the order of the Truth and Right; ignorance is an unconsciousness, acitti, of the Truth and Right, an opposition to its workings and a creation of false or adverse workings. Ignorance is the absence of the divine eye of perception which gives us the sight of the supramental Truth; it is the non-perceiving principle in our consiousness as opposed to the truth-perceiving conscious vision and knowledge.”1

In the Indian context, the nature of knowledge evolved progressively from the intuitive approach to knowledge in the Vedas and Upanishads, to rationalistic knowledge of later philosophy, from the status of perception to that of dialectics that used merely the intellect within the narrow parameters of our temporal existence – a region from where knowledge slips into what may be termed ‘information’.

* * *

If the nature of knowledge can be broadly divided into two categories, the Higher and Lower, or para- and apara-vidya respectively, it would be generally considered that the Higher knowledge would be the one that is sought after in the process of man’s evolution towards the Divine. Higher knowledge or para-vidya enables man to perceive three critical aspects pertaining to his existence. Firstly, an awareness of states of living beyond the material existence and that the concept of ‘life’ exceeds the immediately perceivable time span between birth and death. Secondly, awareness of the partial nature of the waking conscious state and the existence of planes of reality starting from the Inconscient to the superconscient. The third is the realization that the triune of Mind, Life and Body is only a partial manifestation of an eternal immutable self and spirit.

A brilliant illustration can come from Sri Aurobindo’s poem Rishi. Sri Aurobindo introduces the poem thus: “King Manu in the former ages of the world, when the Arctic continent still subsisted, seeks knowledge from the Rishi of the Pole, who after long baffling him with conflicting side-lights of the knowledge, reveals to him what it chiefly concerns man to know.”

The text of the poem is a conversation in verse between the Rishi and King Manu. The poem begins with a general statement of overriding ignorance in human lives, as Manu tells the sage –
But ours are blindly active and thy light
We have forgone.
The Rishi attests Manu’s assessment of human ignorance:
O King, I know
Thy purpose; for the vacant ages roll
Since man below
Conversed with God in friendship. Thou reborn
For men perplexed,
Seekest in this dim aeon and forlorn
With evils vexed
The vanished light.
After a series of exchanges, the Rishi who
perceived the Law,
The Truth, the Vast,
has this to tell Manu:
Perfect thy human might,
Perfect the race.
For thou art He, O King. Only the night
Is on thy soul
By thy own will. Remove it and recover
The serene whole
Thou art indeed, then raise up man the lover
To God the goal.
The Rishi’s suggestion is remarkably simple and without any complex nuances concerning the nature and status of knowledge. Perhaps it is Sri Aurobindo’s advice to us as well. Indeed, a God-centric view in man would help attain the integration of the human self with the Divine self and raise man’s consciousness to levels of superconscience.

The inferences that can be drawn from the poem are all significant pointers to the concept of ‘knowledge’ in the present day world. The more intimately we correlate ‘knowledge’ with a body of facts that can be attained through conscious labour, the more we err and move away from the true nature of knowledge, for its attainment has an intuitive role that goes beyond the perimeters of conscious intellect. Secondly, contrary to the contemporary approach to ‘knowledge’ that inherently presupposes a schism between ‘knowledge’ and the man who knows or does not, true knowledge lies within man and not without. Thirdly, ignorance is merely the failure to understand and unravel the worth of knowledge within. These three corollaries are central to our understanding of knowledge as ‘tapasya’, as ‘askesis’, and as a redirection of our consciousness towards our inner self for unraveling the nature and purpose of existence in the Divine scheme of things. - Rudrashis Datta
1 Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p.489, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 6th edition, 2001
2 Ibid, The Rishi, Collected Poems, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1st edition, 1972
Note: The above article has been written for ‘The Awakening Ray’ and it is original. It has not been published anywhere and is not awaiting publication elsewhere. (ed: the author’s original title: ‘Integral Approach to Knowledge: an illustration’)

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