July 19, 2008

There is a problem with Sri Aurobindo’s metaphysical use of the notion of exclusive concentration

Stephen H. Phillips
Department of Philosophy
University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712

In my exposition of Aurobindo’s worldview, there are doubtless
several loose ends; there are loose ends in Aurobindo’s own exposition of
it. There are also a few conceptual tensions. Some of you have probably
noticed that there is a problem with Aurobindo’s metaphysical use of the
notion of exclusive concentration. On the one hand, the very creation and
maintenance of anything finite appears to require exclusive concentration
and a consonant ignorance, but, on the other, the ‘‘divine life’’ Aurobindo
envisages as the evolutionary telos is to involve a disappearance of
ignorance, an awakening, at least with many, to a spiritual knowledge.
Aurobindo would appear to want to have his cake of necessary ignorance
and to eat it too in our overcoming ignorance. If Brahman’s exclusive
concentration in creating this world brings with it necessarily a bottom
side of ignorance, then the evolutionary telos cannot be just the
overcoming of this ignorance. For Brahman would, in relaxing the
exclusive concentration of its cit or cit-sakti, bring about the
disappearance of our world. The evolutionary telos would be nothing
more than the pralaya, cosmic dissolution, of popular thought. A mere
return of Brahman to its infinite and native state would not explain the
evils of our existence, nor is such a view endorsed by Aurobindo. But the
other horn of the dilemma is also uninviting, in that if Brahman does not
relax its exclusive concentration, mystical experience would appear
impossible, at least the sort of mystical experience that Aurobindo
understands as integral to ‘‘divine life.’’ And if Brahman to know itself
through a human medium does not need to relax the exclusive
concentration that supposedly supports finite things, then shouldn’t we be
born enlightened? Or if a human being’s arriving at brahma-vidya
involves, from the metaphysical point of view, such a relaxing of
exclusive concentration only with regard to that human being and not the
universe, not a pralaya, still it would seem that for that human being there
would have to be dissolution into the Infinite and no further functioning in
this life, at least not during the occurrence of the awareness of Brahman.
It seems we have come to the intractable paradoxes of jivan-mukti,
paradoxes that Aurobindo’s use of the yogic notion of eka-grata -in a fresh
conception of Brahman do not resolve.

Above all, what Aurobindo is trying to establish is, first, that matter
could not have remained inconscient. That Brahman has not remained
inconscient our existences prove since we are conscious material beings.
But Aurobindo tries to show that matter could not possibly have remained
inconscient. And his chief reason is that matter is Brahman, the
supremely conscious, who is capable of assuming an ignorance but who
cannot entirely repudiate essential characteristics, and consciousness is
one of these. Further, Aurobindo wants to show that matter’s necessarily
becoming conscious hooks up not only with biological evolution to this
point but with future evolution in the direction of a divine life where many
will have a mystical and direct awareness of Brahman. In practicing yoga
and becoming aware of Brahman, a person would thus become attuned to
the fundamental cosmic drive of Brahman to self-knowledge within
material forms, what Aurobindo calls the evolutionary nisus. One’s own
would mirror, or line up with, the exclusive concentration of
cit-sakti in matter, and help to bring Brahman’s work to fulfillment.
The most serious problem with these ideas seems to be that of the
logic of the concept of exclusive concentration. It would seem that as
metaphysically employed is a two-edged sword. If it helps
Aurobindo explain how it is possible for Brahman to become matter,
assuming a necessary ignorance, it hinders his articulation of the
evolutionary and divine telos as involving overcoming ignorance in direct
Brahman-awareness. And if it is possible for us to be materially
embodied and at the same time directly Brahman-aware, it becomes
difficult to understand why any ignorance is required. Aurobindo has
nevertheless made a remarkable effort in thinking in such broad strokes
about Brahman and material evolution. It is not easy to produce a grand
metaphysical theory, and probably were more attention paid to
Aurobindo’s effort the difficulty I have uncovered could be patched up,
the view proving resilient in the hands of future Vedantins.

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