Sri Aurobindo was an Indian nationalist but is best known for his philosophy on human evolution and Integral Yoga.
Although Sri Aurobindo was familiar with the most important lines of thought in Western philosophy, he did not acknowledge their influence on his own writings. He wrote that his philosophy "was formed first by the study of the Upanishads and the Gita… They were the basis of my first practice of Yoga." With the help of his readings he tried to move on to actual experience, "and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy, not on ideas themselves.”
He assumes that the seers of the Upanishads had basically the same approach and gives some details of his vision of the past in a long passage in The Renaissance of India. "The Upanishads have been the acknowledged source of numerous profound philosophies and religions," he writes. Even Buddhism with all its developments was only a "restatement" from a new standpoint and with fresh terms. And, furthermore the ideas of the Upanishads "can be rediscovered in much of the thought of Pythagoras and Plato and form the profoundest part of Neo-platonism and Gnosticism..."
Sri Aurobindo's indebtedness to the Indian tradition also becomes obvious through his placing a large number of quotations from the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and theBhagavadgita at the beginning of the chapters in The Life Divine, showing the connection of his own thought to Veda and Vedanta.
Affinity with Western philosophy
In his writings, talks and letters Sri Aurobindo has referred to several European philosophers with whose basic concepts he was familiar, commenting on their ideas and discussing the question of affinity to his own line of thought. Thus he wrote a long essay on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and mentioned especially Plato, Plotinus, Nietzsche and Bergsonas thinkers in whom he was interested because of their more intuitive approach. On the other hand, he felt little attraction for the philosophy of Kant or Hegel.
Several studieshave shown a remarkable closeness to the evolutionary thought of Teilhard de Chardin, whom he did not know, whereas the latter came to know of Sri Aurobindo at a late stage. After reading some chapters of The Life Divine, he is reported to have said that Sri Aurobindo's vision of evolution was basically the same as his own, though stated for Asian readers.
Several scholars have discovered significant similarities in the thought of Sri Aurobindo and Hegel. Steve Odin has discussed this subject comprehensively in a comparative study. Odin writes that Sri Aurobindo "has appropriated Hegel’s notion of an Absolute Spirit and employed it to radically restructure the architectonic framework of the ancient Hindu Vedanta system in contemporary terms." In his analysis Odin arrives at the conclusion that "both philosophers similarly envision world creation as the progressive self-manifestation and evolutionary ascent of a universal consciousness in its journey toward Self-realization." He points out that in contrast to the deterministic and continuous dialectal unfolding of Absolute Reason by the mechanism of thesis-antithesis-synthesis or affirmation-negation-integration, "Sri Aurobindo argues for a creative, emergent mode of evolution." In his résumé Odin states that Sri Aurobindo has overcome the ahistorical world-vision of traditional Hinduism and presented a concept which allows for a genuine advance and novelty.
Synthesis and Integration
Sisir Kumar Maitra, who was a leading exponent of Sri Aurobindo's Philosophy, has referred to the issue of external influences and written that Sri Aurobindo does not mention names, but "as one reads his books one cannot fail to notice how thorough is his grasp of the great Western philosophers of the present age..." Although he is Indian one should not "underrate the influence of Western thought upon him. This influence is there, very clearly visible, but Sri Aurobindo... has not allowed himself to be dominated by it. He has made full use of Western thought, but he has made use of it for the purpose of building up his own system..." Thus Maitra, like Steve Odin, sees Sri Aurobindo not only in the tradition and context of Indian, but also Western philosophy and assumes he may have adopted some elements from the latter for his synthesis.
R. Puligandla supports this viewpoint in his book Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy. He describes Sri Aurobindo's philosophy as "an original synthesis of the Indian and Western traditions." "He integrates in a unique fashion the great social, political and scientific achievements of the modern West with the ancient and profound spiritual insights ofHinduism. The vision that powers the life divine of Aurobindo is none other than the Upanishadic vision of the unity of all existence."
Puligandla believes that the Western influence also becomes evident through Sri Aurobindo's critical position vis-à-vis Shankara and his assumption that the latter teaches through his Mayavada or Illusionism that the world is unreal and illusory. Puligandla objects, "nowhere does Shankara say that the world is unreal and illusory. Quite the contrary, through the concept of sublation he teaches that the world is neither real nor unreal. That this is indeed his teaching is further borne out by his distinction between lower and higher truths." Therefore, Puligandla concludes that "Aurobindo’s characterization of Shankara’s Vedanta as a world-negating philosophy is unfounded." He believes that Sri Aurobindo in his endeavour to synthesize Hindu and Western modes of thought has wrongly identified Shankara's Mayavada with the subjective idealism of George Berkeley, "which undoubtedly stands in sharp contrast to the realism of the Western philosophical tradition in general." Nonetheless, Puligandla believes that Sri Aurobindo was "a great philosopher-mystic" with a significant vision of man and the world.
Sri Aurobindo's critique of Shankara is supported by U. C. Dubey in his paper titledIntegralism: The Distinctive Feature of Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy. He starts by summarizing what he considers to be Sri Aurobindo's most important contributions to philosophy and mentions at first his integral view of Reality. "The creative force or 'cit-śakti' is regarded by him as one with the Absolute. Thus there is no opposition between the Absolute and its creative force in his system." Next Dubey refers to Sri Aurobindo's conception of the supermind as the mediatory principle between the Absolute and the finite world and quotes S.K. Maitra stating that this conception "is the pivot round which the whole of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy moves."
Dubey proceeds to analyse the approach of the Shankarites and believes that they follow an inadequate kind of logic that does not do justice to the challenge of tackling the problem of the Absolute, which cannot be known by finite reason. With the help of the finite reason, he says, "we are bound to determine the nature of reality as one or many, being or becoming. But Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Advaitism reconciles all apparently different aspects of Existence in an all-embracing unity of the Absolute." Next, Dubey explains that for Sri Aurobindo there is a higher reason, the "logic of the infinite" in which his integralism is rooted, and expounds this concept by presenting some quotations from The Life Divine. In concluding he notes critically "that Sri Aurobindo does not explain sufficiently the nature of the logic of the infinite." Nevertheless, "the way he proposes this logic is undoubtedly his unique contribution in the field of Absolutism."
His influence has been wide-ranging. In India, S. K. Maitra, Anilbaran Roy and D. P. Chattopadhyaya commented on Sri Aurobindo's work. Writers on esotericism and traditional wisdom, such as Mircea Eliade, Paul Brunton, and Rene Guenon, all saw him as an authentic representative of the Indian spiritual tradition.
Haridas Chaudhuri and Frederic Spiegelberg were among those who were inspired by Aurobindo, who worked on the newly formed American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Soon after, Chaudhuri and his wife Bina established the Cultural Integration Fellowship, from which later emerged the California Institute of Integral Studies.