April 05, 2009

How important it is to study Sri Aurobindo historically

Re: 100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution: The Illusion of Human Progress and the Ideal of Human Unity (part 5 of 6)by Debashish on Fri 03 Apr 2009 12:19 PM PDT Profile Permanent Link
Terrific article! Among other things, it brings out powerfully how important it is to study Sri Aurobindo historically and to pay heed to the complexties of his thought. Apart from the obvious reasons, in his case, one fiinds an interesting operation of his relationship as a yogi with time (kala, one of the Four Aids, and trikaladrishti, the Triple Time Vision, as per the Synthesis of Yoga). In this respect, his "predictive" pronouncements should best be read as performatve acts of will, sraddha, based on his state of consciousness and knowledge.
But at the same tiime, each of these acts are heuristics, "what-if" scanarios, with alternative possibilities to which he improvised alternate trajectories as needed. This interplay between trikaladrishti and prakamya is pervasive throughout the Record of Yoga and his later writings are a more formal manifestation of this method. Predicition, optimism/faith as a heuristic, unsparing realism, scientific (re)assessment and revised approaches are the norm in the Record and one, would infer from it, throughout his life.
Perhaps among the most glaring examples of this was his "death," which, at least according to the mythology internalized by the disciples from his own heurstic statements was never supposed to happen. What should have been clear as the unmistakeable lesson from all this is that his method was what he was inviting his students and disciples to follow, rather than to create mythologies of his predictions. The tension between Hegel and Nietzsche, or that between historicism and individual will is a constant and living dialog in Sri Aurobindo and it is this dialog which he is directing us towards. Unfortunately, humankind finds it more convenient to rest in belief systems which they can adulate and have no need to emulate. DB

Update: From Mirror of Tomorrow (Archives) - May 30, 2012
Re: Sri Aurobindo’s Marriage—a discussion by Raman Reddy pertaining to a few aspects in context of the latest biography published by the Columbia University Press by Kepler on Thu 11 Mar 2010 02:08 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
I see auroman has been doing his homework. He is perhaps becoming an example of a disciple of Sri Aurobindo awakening his intellect to take on the challenge of engaging contemporary intellectual culture. It may be a task largely irrelevant to anyone’s inner sadhana, but still somewhat relevant to expression and life in the world. Sri Aurobindo was supremely erudite and obviously bothered in his writings to engage the thought currents of the time – a time now almost 100 years ago. So thought currents have changed and it shouldn't hurt to have a few more followers of Sri Aurobindo able to credibly "dialog" with contemporary mental life and culture. 

by Kepler on Thu 11 Mar 2010 08:57 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
“Frankly, all this "engaging the world in discourse" is needless exertion... Mental frameworks can only be shattered by proof of Divinity rather than lectures and books. One who has Adhikara will succeed irrespective of his or her mode of expression...”

Defining “succeed” as inner spiritual realization, that's no doubt true. Defining it as transformation of nature and life on earth, then other things can also assume a place. E.g. Sri Aurobindo spent quite a bit of time expressing himself in published writings.

Re postmodernism, I agree it can, given a certain approach to it, convey a type of benefit. It points to inherent limitations of the mind and of mental reasoning – possibly invoking a kind of negative samata toward all thinking - as you suggest. 

by Kepler on Thu 11 Mar 2010 10:02 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link "following Kepler’s line of argument"

I fear you have not followed it. Sri Aurobindo in certain places in his writings references the state of rational knowledge and thought at that time. Since then there have been further developments, e.g. postmodernism in the humanities, the micro and neural biological revolutions in the sciences, the European Union in politics. Presumably if Sri Aurobindo were writing today he might have some comment on those developments. Likewise readers today who are versed in those developments might react differently to certain references in Sri Aurobindo's writings than a reader would have 100 years ago. Someone intellectually capable might be able to address such developments from an Aurobindonian perspective - and there might be some value in that.

Would you counter that there have been no new developments in human thought or knowledge in the past 100 years, or that it’s not possible to relate Sri Aurobindo’s thought to any such developments, or that there can be no possible value in doing so? I admit one could reasonably debate the “possible value” point – I was really just agreeing with Raman Reddy re “disciples of Sri Aurobindo should awaken their intellects”, although I didn’t see why it should be only “Indian disciples”, and further qualified that “a few more” such disciples “shouldn’t hurt”. I fail to see where re-writing the Life Divine comes in. 

by Kepler on Sun 14 Mar 2010 11:42 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
RYD: “Would rational knowledge and its development in the course of time affect the spiritual verities and their statements?"

The key distinction is “their statements”. Spiritual truths are eternal – i.e they exist outside of time. Their statements however occur in time and human thought and language. The quote from Sri Aurobindo you give is on a slightly different subject: science and spiritual metaphysics having incommensurable, although not unrelated, domains of inquiry.

RYD: “The Gita was given five thousand years ago but its fundamental formulations have not altered

Yes, the Gita is a perfect example. Its expressions of deep spiritual truths still resonate deeply thousands of years later – one measure of its greatness. However it does not expound on the truth of the progressive manifestation of spirit and consciousness through time in progressively more complex physical forms on earth – the concept of spiritual evolution so central for Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Could it be that the expression of the idea of evolution by Darwin, that had such a global impact on human thought in the latter half of the 19th century, has absolutely nothing to do with why it is central to Sri Aurobindo's Life Divine but is not in the Gita? It has always been a spiritual truth, but its expression in human thought and language has a certain contingency on the state of development of that thought and language.

RYD: “If this is denied, then the natural conclusion would be, The Life Divine would get dated the moment the Large Hadron Collider starts spewing out its data. In other words, Sri Aurobindo had just wasted all his time

That's quite a leap. If some illustrative reference here and there in the LD became dated, it need hardly invalidate all of its central themes or render them a waste of time. In just the past decade much new research has been going on in neuroscience on the subject of consciousness – from the perspective of physical science. The results of course do not invalidate the spiritual view of consciousness, but do provide some interesting new data. If Sri Aurobindo were still writing today, I cannot imagine him completely ignoring those developments; however 100 years ago how would he have been able to discuss them? 

by Kepler on Fri 12 Mar 2010 01:37 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link Vikas,
Please see my reply to RYD above where I tried to elaborate a bit on what I meant by changing thought currents, etc.

You're of course right that intellectual discourse tends to appeal to the mind instead of illumining the soul, and is famous for its endless debates without issue. Still the mind does have its role to play in expressing the soul in thought, life and action.

Sri Aurobindo did not confine his writings to Upanishadic-style verse, but wrote at enormous length in the style of rational elaboration and articulation (I'm not saying his expressions were a result of ordinary ratiocination - but the expressed writing is certainly in a supremely rational style). So while steering clear of “Gobi deserts” of the intellect, one wouldn’t want to excessively devalue rational thought and expression either. 

by Kepler on Mon 15 Mar 2010 10:55 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
RYD: “Regarding the latest human knowledge in various branches of human pursuit and its possible relationship with the spiritual discoveries and formulations of a universal kind

That was indeed the topic of discussion, but it seems you tend to interpret “its possible relationship” only as the issue of whether scientific knowledge can invalidate expressions of spiritual knowledge – or generally whether intellectual pursuits can somehow replace spiritual seeking. Of course the answer is no. Hence my example of the development of the theory of evolution which not only did not invalidate past spiritual knowledge (e.g. the Gita), but was thoroughly synthesized by Sri Aurobindo into his comprehensive expression of a progressive spiritual evolution manifesting on earth. Did the LD invalidate the Gita, or did it just expand established expressions of spiritual truth onto new horizons? And did not the theory of evolution provide some of the conceptual and linguistic material used by Sri Aurobindo to express his expanded spiritual vision? It’s only natural that the human instruments of thought and speech condition somewhat the Spirit’s expression through them; as the instrumental capacities develop and are refined, previously unheard melodies might be played by the Spirit. 

by Kepler on Tue 16 Mar 2010 06:12 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link Akash: “Too many things are mixed up here

I can't help but notice that you make this comment and then proceed to throw numerous new and unrelated things into the mix. The subject was the relationship of developments in human thought and knowledge to the expression of spiritual truths. Perhaps it was grand cosmic coincidence that the first clear articulation of progressive spiritual evolution as the key to the meaning and purpose of human life on earth was given by Sri Aurobindo 50 years after Darwin, and not previously throughout the long and profound traditions of spiritual knowledge and expression in India or elsewhere. To me it simply shows how progress in the instrumental stuff of human mental knowledge can help facilitate new expressions of spiritual knowledge. Mental progress is itself an element of the spiritual evolution of consciousness, so this doesn't seem so surprising. How this point might relate to farming, brahmacharya, or updating Sri Aurobindo's works and still passing them off as his own, is however a mystery to me. 

by Kepler on Tue 16 Mar 2010 08:48 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link Akash: "you will excuse me for trying to sort out if you are implying cause or correlation or curiosity"

I'm more than happy to excuse you, but I've repeatedly referred to the role of advances in human thought as an "instrument" of spiritual expression. One is not normally confused as to the causal status of an instrument - i.e. one doesn't congratulate the flute instead of the musician after a performance. Yet the characteristics and capacities of the flute are obviously a factor affecting the music that can be expressed through it. If one designs a new flute and can thereby produce notes previously not possible, there is no requirement to re-write all previous compositions - they remain as beautiful ever. 

by Kepler on Tue 16 Mar 2010 08:33 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link auroman: "More, Kepler?"

I can't quite tell if your post is partly (or entirely) sarcasm, but who knows what Sri Aurobindo would write differently today - although some things would surely be somewhat different. Most obviously, works like the Human Cycle, Ideal of Human Unity, Future Poetry, etc., would likely reference developments that have occurred in the ensuing years. Can this really be a controversial statement? How could Sri Aurobindo have evaluated the way in which the Soviet Union ended, many decades before it ended?

His occasional references to then-current scientific theory or data would likely also be more current. RYD provided some quotes showing Sri Aurobindo seemed to feel, even in the 1930's, that the materialistic world-view associated with science was significantly waning - as things turned out it has continued to be rather strong (at least in the west). It would be fascinating to know his current view on such things.

This subject is, by the way, distinct from the more general topic of the relationship of progress in human knowledge to the expression of spiritual truths. I used the example of evolution to show that a major expansion in human conception can play a role in facilitating a new expression of spiritual truth. I'm certainly not suggesting that Sri Aurobindo would likely today produce some completely different spiritual expression (i.e. “re-write the Life Divine”) due to ensuing advances in neuroscience, critical theory, or information technology. But he might well have something interesting to say on those subjects. 

by Kepler on Tue 16 Mar 2010 10:39 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
RYD: “Darwinian findings referred to here are not presented to get support for his ‘hypothesis’ of the evolutionary manifestation

Of course not. Sri Aurobindo is dramatically expanding the notion of evolution into many dimensions inconceivable to Darwin. Note however that he does refer to “that status of evolution which the Darwinian theory first made plain to human knowledge”. Certain vague concepts of evolution existed before Darwin – his singular contribution was proposing a plausible mechanism of nature that could have led species to gradually evolve all their characteristics over long periods of time – including humans. This created a huge, unprecedented wave of thinking on the subject of humans as the direct product of some evolutionary process.

RYD: “In fact, a question which might be asked is: Did Sri Aurobindo really bring anything new which is not there in the ancient lore?

I must say I’m surprised you would suggest that. Sri Aurobindo did point out certain references to the Supermind in the Veda and Upanishads, and his Yoga obviously builds on past traditions and realizations. But would you really suggest that his expression of a processes of spiritual involution and evolution, progressively manifesting Satchitananda through increasingly evolved forms in the physical world, leading to a supramental transformation of earthly Nature and a Divine life on earth – brings nothing new that was not already expressed in the ancient lore? If so, I fear we won’t be able to see eye-to-eye on this topic or on many others.

RYD: “the Knowledge of the Spirit is ageless, eternal, sanātan, that which is incontingent.

Here again, if you don’t distinguish between the non-contingent Knowledge of the Spirit, and the contingent expression of that Knowledge in human thought and language at some particular point in time, then we probably can’t really discuss this topic. 

by Kepler on Thu 18 Mar 2010 12:59 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
So then do you hold, as I phrased it above, that it was grand cosmic coincidence that the first clear articulation of progressive spiritual evolution as the key to the meaning and purpose of life on earth was given by Sri Aurobindo 50 years after Darwin, and not previously throughout the long and profound traditions of spiritual knowledge and expression in India or elsewhere? That could of course be true, it just seems implausible to me.

It’s not like Sri Aurobindo was reading Darwin’s Origin, getting ideas and thereafter thinking up his own version of evolution. It’s rather that the firm establishment on the mental plane of the formed idea that humans are a product of evolution, provided some of the mental stuff used by Sri Aurobindo’s in the thought-expression of his spiritual vision and experience. This is hardly to say, “Darwin caused the LD”, except in the most childish interpretation of what it means for spiritual knowledge to make use of mental thought-stuff as an instrument of its expression.

Maybe I’m wrong – but we had been talking about how developments in human mental knowledge might aid in the expression of spiritual truths, and this just seemed like a blindingly obvious example to me. 

by Kepler on Thu 18 Mar 2010 07:38 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
Establishment of a formed idea on the mental plane does not mean it is not debated and disputed. Everything on the mental plane is debated and disputed. But it means it exists and is available for articulation in thought and speech.

Re the grand cosmic coincidence, I'll try again to re-state it. In the 50 years after Darwin, the concept of evolution applied to humans on earth became well formed, widely known, developed, and discussed by well developed minds. I'm not aware of any previous time in history when that was the case – you can enlighten me if I'm wrong.

About 50 years after Darwin's work (which initiated this wide-spread general conceptualizing of evolution), Sri Aurobindo articulated his vision of a spiritual evolution occurring on earth; evolution became a key element of his comprehensive theory of the meaning and purpose of life, the human soul, and every other profound question concerning the universe we find ourselves in. I'm not aware of any previous time in history when this was so done – you can enlighten me if I'm wrong.

So to me the connection is clear (“blindingly obvious”): the formed idea of evolution provided useful material for Sri Aurobindo's expression of the Vision and Knowledge he received via his yoga. Hence it's an example of an advance in mental knowledge aiding in the expression of spiritual knowledge.

Another view might be that there is absolutely no connection of any kind between the general articulation of the idea of evolution in the later 19 century, and Sri Aurobindo's articulation of his philosophy of spiritual evolution in the early 20th. It just so happened (the “grand cosmic coincidence”) that this articulation occurred at that time and never before in the long, long history of spiritual philosophy and expression. It was an utterly random confluence of events.

I hope that's more clear now. I realize there may be reluctance toward this idea if you think it would somehow lessen Sri Aurobindo's achievement if there was an instrumental dependency of any kind. I don't see it that way – anymore than his achievement was lessened by his reliance on a language developed by Anglo-Saxon peoples of the British Isles (as opposed perhaps to having invented his own entirely new language to write in). But I won't press the point any farther – anyone who might see value in it has now had ample chance to consider it. 

by Kepler on Sat 20 Mar 2010 11:41 PM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
Lamarck of course published some ideas several decades before Darwin concerning species evolving more complex characteristics via adaptation. You can substitute Lamarck-Darwin, or 19th century thinkers, for Darwin if you like. Muhammad al-Nakhshabi seems to be known for a brief suggestive sentence in a book from the 10th century, and as for Aristotle's theory of evolution that has lasted for two millenniums, please provide some references.

You make the point that statements about singular-seeming events in history cannot be reliable since we only have limited historical knowledge and can't know with certainty that, for example, evolution was not clearly articulated, and widely held and discussed by people in some unknown culture at some unknown time. True enough – we can only make historical comments based on what we know, not what we don't know. Similarly we can't know for sure there weren't 13 “lost” Upanishads that completely contradict Vedanta; we have to base our thinking on what we do know about the past.

If you start defining a “theory of evolution”, to include most any conception of creation, nature, or consciousness that involves some sort of process that develops over time – then of course all manner of things could be so counted – including the traditional creation myths of most ancient cultures.

It's interesting that you cannot accept that the 19th century articulation of natural evolution was an “advance in mental knowledge”. You criticize it for its materialistic and non-spiritual orientation – that's of course true but applies equally to almost all of science. So is almost none of modern science an advance in mental knowledge, not even in knowledge of the physical world and its external processes? Were ancient theories concerning the physical world and its external processes more advanced? Philosophical implications drawn by many in the wake of the evolution concept (e.g. “proof” that naturalistic materialism can explain everything), were and are of course wrong-headed and even harmful. Sri Aurobindo's articulation of spiritual evolution corrects this and places the truth inherent in the idea of evolution in its proper role and perspective. It may be best not to conflate “advances in mental knowledge” of the physical world that science provides, with the larger philosophical framework of materialism in which science usually operates. That's a different subject.

My point rests on the relationship between what was new in the 19th century articulation of natural evolution, and what was new in Sri Aurobindo's articulation of spiritual evolution. If you hold one or both of those were actually nothing new anyway, then that's fine, although I would disagree. In your previous comment you agreed that developments in human mental knowledge might aid in the expression of spiritual truths (Vikas: “No doubt and only too obvious”). Since you think evolution is a bad example, what example would you suggest to illustrate this?

On the point of whether there is anything new brought by Sri Aurobindo that was not already there in the ancient lore of India (as RYD speculated), and more specifically whether his articulation of spiritual evolution was nothing new, the letters from Sri Aurobindo I posted give, I think, his own clear opinion on that question. In any event, I appreciate your thoughtful and articulate comments and enjoyed reading them. 

Re: Sri Aurobindo’s Marriage by Kepler on Tue 23 Mar 2010 08:59 AM IST |  Profile |  Permanent Link
Now it seems plausible to me that when he uses the word “evolution” in the second quote (his acceptance of its philosophical truth), it refers to the same thing as in his use of the word “evolution” in the first quote (the key-note of the thought the nineteenth century). Hence he incorporates the “truth” of the concept of evolution (as articulated in the 19th century), into his own spiritual philosophy – with sweeping, dramatic changes in its content and scope - but still there seems to be a relationship. […]
When he says “we can no longer suppose”, and “It has become evident” that an “an energy of creation has effected the transition”, these seem again references to the theory of evolution as articulated in the 19th century. […]
When he says “Once the evolutionary hypothesis is put forward and the facts supporting it are marshalled, this aspect of the terrestrial existence becomes so striking as to appear indisputable.”, the “hypothesis” and “facts” again appear to be referring to the theory of evolution as articulated in the 19th century.

Now there's no question that Sri Aurobindo rejected entirely the materialistic interpretation of evolution, and that his vision of spiritual evolution corrects, improves, and massively surpasses the scientific theory on all sides. But I don't see why one couldn't suggest he made use of this advance in human mental knowledge to provide some of the instrumental material in his own expression of spiritual Knowledge and Truth.
So if you still see no merit in this example, I'll gladly drop the point. Although I'd remain interested to know your replacement example of an advance in mental knowledge aiding in the expression of spiritual knowledge. 

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