August 09, 2008

Sri Aurobindo's contribution to the future of humanity through cross-cultural nature of his writings and implicit disciplinary redefinitions

Sri Aurobindo and the Future of Humanity by Debashish on Fri 08 Aug 2008 07:36 PM PDT Science, Culture and Integral Yoga Permanent Link 8:34 AM
SRI AUROBINDO AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY This article attempts to sketch out Sri Aurobindo's contribution to the future of humanity as carried in his major texts. In doing so, it also tries to underline the cross-cultural nature of these texts and the disciplinary redefinitions implicit in them.
Debashish Banerji

The modern age may be said to begin in Europe in the 18th c., in the wake of the European Enlightenment, an intellectual movement which resulted in a change of human self-definition and outlook. It brought a new faith in human reason as a divine faculty, capable of knowing and bettering the laws by which all things were made. Such a drive towards a rational omniscience and with it, an omnipotence and omnipresence is powerfully with us today, as the Age of Reason uncovers the secrets of matter, life and mind and harnesses these for a systematic understanding and perfection of human life and society. But of course, the noble goal of human perfectability is no longer seen as universally as the motive power of this world dominating drive. Race, class and gender inequalities, the political privilege of white man, the subjection of the world to the forces of an ubiquitous market serving the greed of capital accumulation, the bulldozing of non-western cultures to a normative uniformity, the exploitation of natural resources to the point of depletion, the failure of the promise of universal health, wealth, knowledge, security or happiness, have all been made public by innumerable critical and bitter voices, darkening the confidence of the ever-accelerating drive for rational and technological progress, the hallmarks of the civilization of modernity in which we find oursleves.

But these limitations notwithstanding, we must concede that never before in the history of mankind has such a concentrated universal focus of study been brought to bear on humanity and the world s/he inhabits. Additionally, never before has such a systematic power of material unification been brought to bear on humanity. The power of abstraction of objective fact and subjective experience into information and the universal dissemination of information, its universal and ubiquitous translatability, both in terms of languages and of mobility through space and time, has inundated the psycho-sphere of earth, making it possible for large populations worldwide to be swept by personalities and ideologies or to access these at will. Though originating in mental processes and based on a definition and fixation of the human as a rational being, this concentrated need to know and master man and nature has resulted in (or maybe, from another vantage, is the result of) an intensity of consciousness, which has manifested in a section of humanity as a stress of re-evaluation and redefinition. From the middle of the 19th c., one encounters the beginnings of a worldwide ferment towards such a redefinition of human culture and identity. Whether in the arts, music, literature, philosophy, psychology or science, the forms of human understanding and creative expression have undergone unprecedented revolutionary changes which seem to have rendered the past largely obsolete.

If one looks at these efforts today, what strikes us is their common drive towards a subjective revolution critiquing the dominant paradigm of the Enlightenment and attempting to overcome its trenchant divides. The materialistic bias of the modern age had remained so far unquestioned; it was considered the new datum of civilization, the privileged vantage of reason upon its objectified world. What was challenged in all these new breakthroughs was the location of consciousness in this modern state of being.

  • Was matter after all as unconscious, as conditioned, measurable and predictable as it seemed?
  • Could forms of life and mind be reduced to the same objectivity as matter?
  • Was consciousness the prerogative of the human mind or was the mind as conditioned in its own way as the world it presumed to understand?
  • Was consciousness limited to the human mind or were there forms of consciousness outside of mind?
  • Could human beings have access to any such forms of consciousness?
  • Were mind as subject and the world as its object distinct and separate, could mind be reduced to matter or matter be reduced to mind or did they interfere with each other in their mutuality?
  • Could the human being discover and identify with a consciousness which transcended the duality of subject and object, mind and matter?

These and other such questions occupied the thinking and expression of many creative personalities from the middle of the 19th c. The naturalism of post-Renaissance art was challenged in a succession of artistic ideologies based in experimental subjectivism. Quantum Physics shook the bastion of material determinism with a description of Matter in which consciousness seemed implicated (and vice versa). Psychology extended the ranges of consciousness beyond waking rationality into the worlds of symbol and dream. In all this revision of the cultural universe of modern man, Philosophy too played its part in rethinking human identity. At the head of the consciousness revolution of postmodernism stands Friedrich Nietzsche who, drawing on the protean power of the creative will, announced the self-exceeding of man in the superman.

Sri Aurobindo was born at a time of such ferment in the city of Calcutta in India. From childhood he felt that he was born in a time of momentous change and that he was destined to play a part in it. Indeed, following Sri Aurobindo’s own theory of evolution, we may say that if the entry into a subjective age and a rethinking of human identity and expression initiated in the mid-19th c. by the concentrated force of mind at the cusp of its development was an act of nature turning towards its own self-exceeding, the arrival of Sri Aurobindo was the inevitable response of the principle of consciousness beyond mind descending to unlock its own power of manifestation on earth. The Mother put it thus: “What Sri Aurobindo represents in the earth’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation, it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme.” What was this decisive action and what does it mean for humanity’s future? This is the question left for us to fathom in our grappling with the future of humanity.

Of course, the scope of such a statement as the Mother’s opens the doors on the invisible occult action of Sri Aurobindo. To acknowledge such an action is a matter of faith, and perhaps faith is a critical component in orienting ourselves towards the future, but a more active aspect of such orientation needs to be an informed understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s contribution towards the future through his more visible expressions, particularly his writings. So what does Sri Aurobindo give us in his writings, that helps in orienting us towards the future? Sri Aurobindo provides us with a comprehensive map towards the future – diverse yet integral – every part of which is pregnant with the fullness of the whole, in keeping with the perfection of a self-existent and accomplished consciousness presaging the vision of human fulfillment. In his magnificent epic Savitri, Sri Aurobindo has a line which describes well the power of his own manifestation and its action upon the future of humanity. He says: “In the beginning is prepared the close.” Indeed, this is also part of his theory of evolution. It casts a penetrating light on the evolution of consciousness in time, or shall we say of consciousness as time? A new age is prepared by a descent of the possibilities of its full manifestation in seed form at its very initiation. This is the intervention, the descent from above, the avatar whose disclosure of a new power of being and consciousness is represented by Sri Aurobindo in the first canto of Savitri: the Symbol Dawn. Sri Aurobindo in his life and works represents such a dawn of the supramental age and initiates us into its flowering in our lives. More specifically, in his writings, he gives us a new philosophy, a new psychology, a new theory of creative expression and a new theory of social and political life – making up in their totality, a new vision of human being and becoming, individual and collective, a blueprint for a destiny which he announces as a life divine...

Heretofore, the Indian traditions of darshana and yoga had established a trenchant division between the Real and the Phenomenal, basing the first as eternally non-dual and self-conscious (Vidya) and the second as eternally fragmented and unconscious or at best, semi-conscious (Avidya). Human beings found themselves born into the unchangeable cosmic condition of Avidya but had the potential of consciousness to abandon this field of Ignorance and know themselves individually as one with or a part or participant of divine self-consciousness, Vidya. Of course, this pithy formulation hardly does justice to the complicated debates on the reality or unreality of the Avidya, the subsidiary existence, non-existence or perpetual separate existence of the human essence (atman), the impersonal (non-theistic) or personal (theistic) qualitative reality of the Vidya and of its varied possibilities of relation or lack thereof with the Avidya and the human individual (jiva), etc., which have made up the rich fabric of discourse and sectarian practice in the Indian tradition.

But what Sri Aurobindo brought to this tradition is the idea of significance to the temporality of the phenomenal cosmos, Avidya, which challenged the discursive boundaries of the existing tradition, even while affirming its foundational experiences and intuitions arising from the Veda and the Vedanta. Looked at from within this tradition, Sri Aurobindo's transcendental and evolutionary theism, provides a coherent vision of Avidya as an evolving self-representation of Vidya, marked by choice and a relational identity with the Vidya in its individual constitutents, emerging through the consolidation of a soul personality through repeated life-experience (rebirth) and arriving at the possibility of a specific embodiment of the transcendental Person in each human being. Thus the journey of the human soul from Avidya to Vidya follows both an individual and a representative cosmic trajectory, destined towards a transformation of the Avidya to a play (lila) of the self-conscious unity of the Divine Person with its infinite individualized self-representations. This is the Life Divine, an ontological change in the cosmic conditions of earthly existence, which can achieve itself only through the leverage of a power of consciousness known as Supermind, where the embodied individual exists in identity with the cosmic being and the transcendental Person in the field of the play of difference in Oneness. It must be realized that Sri Aurobindo enunciated this darshana using over 1000 pages of intuitively luminous and closely argued text in his magnum opus, The Life Divine and thus my attempt to outline his contribution in these few sentences is necessarily very inadequate. But what can be affirmed is the felicity and completeness with which all the questions of the Indian tradition are answered, the loose ends and absences demonstrated and tied and the conclusions put in place in a structure of overwhelming coherence and integrality.

What emerges from this also is the sense of the contemporary location of human consciousness at the edge of a species-wide becoming, being urged beyond mind towards the conscious choice of a collaboration with the evolutionary imperative leading to a supramental future. The elements and dynamics of such a collaboration in terms of its practices and experiences, are what Sri Aurobindo develops in his works on yoga such as The Synthesis of Yoga, The Mother and The Letters on Yoga. Modern psychology is today struggling to emerge from its cramped foundational bounds in a social compromise between the rational ego and the animal drives in man and a number of approaches which make a larger description and ideal realization of human consciousness, humanistic, developmental, existential and transpersonal, have appeared in the western academy to represent possibilities more in keeping with a future-directed definition of the human being, taking into account the highest possibilities which have been experienced and expressed so far. This trend is clearly anticipated in Sri Aurobindo's yogic works, which once again, should be read cross-culturally, as part of a disciplinary transformation of the western study of applied psychology as well as an original contribution to the Indian discipline of yoga.

In this short discussion of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy and psychology, we see a principal characteristic of his contribution towards the future of humanity – it includes all the threads of human thinking that have gone before, overcomes their one-sidedness and puts each in its place in a complex structure which yet seems simple and inevitable in its integral perfection. One of the signs of integrality is its ultimate simplicity. Indeed, one of the founding intuitions of modern science – and that which makes it seek for the Law which explains all laws – is that reality is ultimately simple. The perfection that nature presents to us is of this order – even in unfathomable intricacy and complexity there exists a miraculous harmony which faces us with the simple being of the creation, its indivisible unity. This is something man-made creations can never achieve – they inevitably turn out to be assemblages of constituents. In Sri Aurobindo's writings we find this overwhelming sense of the unity and perfection of being, even in their great complexity they bear the mark of something which is a creation of nature, albeit a higher nature fully self-conscious in all its parts, of its wholeness. 8:34 AM

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