An audio recording and a transcript of a talk, followed by a recitation from the Savitri (Book Two Canto 7)
The Golden Life-Line
As slow our ship her foamy track
Against the wind was cleaving,
Her trembling pennant still looked back
To that dear isle ’twas leaving.
So loth we part from all we love,
From all the links that bind us,
So turn our hearts, where’er we rove,
To those we’ve left behind us!
[“As slow our ship”, Thomas Moore (1779–1852)]
THIS is not merely children’s homesickness; it is a fundamental note of the human nature as it is at present constituted. We always look backward, we always are tied to our roots and it is with great difficulty and much effort that we advance and go forward or upward away from our origins. In a nobler language this is called tradition. Often tradition is made identical with and taken for both life and culture. Denying the past is looked upon almost as refusing the source of life and light.
Viewed from another standpoint this harking back to the past, to the roots, as we say, is the greatest obstacle to human progress. Man progresses, indeed, the whole creation advances bybreaking with the past. The leap from the mineral to the plant, from the inorganic to the organic, is the first and most significant break. Even so, are the progressive breaks from the plant to the animal and from the animal to man. In man too similar progressive, i.e., radically progressive steps or leaps are recognisable. The ape man without tools and the first man with tools mark very different stages in human consciousness and life. And we have carried on more or less the same manner of progression till today. But against this forward movement of nature, there is a counter pull backward. The principle of inertia, of standing still, is of the very nature of matter, the basic fact of creation. The force of gravity, earth’s pull, does not allow you to shoot up; it brings you down, and if you stand erect, the innate tendency of the body is to sit down or lie flat, obedient to the earth’s attraction. This physical inertia acts also upon the mind, including the vital consciousness. This is translated in the consciousness as an attachment to the past, to what man has been familiar with. Conservation is the term in respect of physical Nature and atavism is its expression in human nature.
It is so difficult for man to leave the beaten track, for that means risk and danger; our thoughts and movements are all shaped in the mould of the past, we carry out what old habits have instructed us; any new thought, any new act we happen to come across we seek to link it to an antecedent or precedent, similar in kind or form. It is a never-ending succession, a causal chain that makes up our life, the present being always produced by its past. That means the present, and so also the future, is only another form or term of the past. What is not in the past is not in the present or the future, that is to say, such is the constitution of our consciousness and nature: there is a natural and inevitable faith and trust in the past, an extension of the past; there is only’ apprehension for the future, uncertainty in the present.* It was Buddha’s signal achievement to uncover this great illusion, the illusion of an inexhaustible and inexorably continuing past, continuing into the present and into the future. He saw that to be is not continuity but a sequence of discrete moments (and events). It is ignorance that finds a link between these entities; they are in reality absolutely separate and distinct from each other. If you can wake up from this ignorance as from a dream you will find they all disintegrate and disperse and end in nothing. The only reality is that Nothing. Shankara however says that it is not mere Nothing but Pure Existence, instead of an illusion of existences you have the original Existence, the absolute existence.
The Upanishad speaks of the creation as a garland and all the elements of life-that are like precious jewels-are strung upon a secret thread. Indeed, it is not on nothing that this multiplicity which is the creation is standing and holding together. There is however a twofold secret thread – one that binds together a world of ignorance: that is the thread of ignorance which passes through, even keeps alive as it were, all the expressions and embodiments of the ignorance, pain and suffering, greed and hunger, egoism and selfishness and all forms of what is called evil. But it is the apparent world; even so, it is not pure delusion: it is a make-believe or falsehood which keeps behind it the true, the real world. That world lies behind the mask, the present actual world; it is another world of light and truth, power and delight and purity. There the link that binds together the succession of events and realities is a golden thread of pure consciousness. The link of ignorance is, one may say, the iron link, and is open to rust and decay inevitably. It is the link that binds together the ordinary life of ignorance, that pulls always backward, clings to all that has gone by, seeks to extend the past into the present and the future, feels unhappy if that is disturbed.
In a new and higher life we are asked to discard that link and come out of it, to discover the other inner link, the link of light. That turns always to the future, directs all impulses and activities towards the realities that are to be.
These are then the two chains binding, each in its own way, our life-movements, each building a whole with a special significance and fulfilment. They are two life-lines, as it were, running parallel to each other. One, as I have said, is the normal mundane life, the other a transfigured spiritual life. The Upanishad, we know, speaks of the path of the Sun and the path of the Fathers-they roughly correspond to the two lines I have just spoken of. But the Upanishadic path of the Sun is a vertical ascension from the normal life-line into a transcendent beyond. What we meant was not an ascension beyond but a parallel growth in transformation, that is to say, what we referred to as the lower iron links are to be transmuted into the golden ones, without breaking or dissolving them. The problem is to find out the secret of this alchemy that transmutes the iron links into the golden ones. Psychologically the Buddhist way is a great help even if it is not the unique and inevitable one towards that consummation. For it dislocates, disintegrates the chain that binds the being to the normal and ignorant life. It teaches one to see and feel life as separate and isolated ‘moments’, there being no real link between the moments; so if one is to live the truth of life one must learn to live from moment to moment without any thought from the past or of the future. The Biblical motto gains in this connection a deeper significance: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. One does not carry on his shoulders the burden of the past moments nor a possible burden in the thought of the morrow. One becomes free, absolutely free, with no care but just the need of the moment to note and the immediate gesture to meet it.
That is a way, an effective way, for dissolving life, but we seek, as we have said, not dissolution or disintegration but integration – integration into a higher integer, a greater reality. The lower chain dissolved, we have to find a new status beyond the dissolution. That is perhaps what the Upanishad indicated when it said: one has to traverse death through Ignorance (perception of ignorance) and then through Knowledge (perception of the Knowledge) attain immortality. Buddha has led us across death, now we have to reach immortality. There is a higher line of Karma and a lower line running parallel as I said to each other-the lower (the iron chain) leads from death to death, the higher (the golden) leads from life to life and from light to light.
The transference from the lower chain to the higher is to be effected by the consciousness of nothingness (Shunyam) being filled or impregnated with the new consciousness of Immortality; for the units of the normal or ignorant consciousness are themselves not wholly or essentially ignorant and mortal. They have in them what Buddha did not see or recognise – the immortal soul or self – as the Vedic Rishis said: that which is immortal in the mortal. What is mortal in the apparently mortal unit is the covering that hides the immortal nucleus. This covering is made of, as we know, the mental, the vital and the physical being. These perish, that is to say, change; but that does not affect the immortal being within. Thus the consciousness is to be drawn away or detached from the covering and hitched on to the unchanging reality within. That forms the golden link of the chain of immortality of the Supreme Light. The transference from the lower chain is to be effected through the consciousness of the luminous immortal divine unit. It is the Divine in man, familiarly called ‘antaryamin’.
Naturally, the transference of the consciousness and being from the lower or surface line to the line that lies on a higher and deeper level does not mean, we must note, the rejection or annihilation of the lower in favour of the higher. The consciousness of the soul or self does not negate the consciousness of the body and the life and the mind. It only purifies, elevates, and transmutes them into its true and divine expression and embodiment.
To live in the soul is to live in eternity with the vision and inspiration of the eternal. It is living in the mind and the vital and the body that turns and binds one to the past, renders one a slave to mortality.
The units of this higher chain of consciousness are free from all drag of the past or hold of the present: their being is turned automatically towards the future, the Great Event to which all creation moves; for that is the truth of its inmost reality: the inspiration of its movements comes from that intimate source. The units of one’s own life, all its moments share in this freedom and this life inspiration and all together form the wonderful harmony of the golden chain. The units are not separated or isolated from each other-freedom of the individual here does not mean isolation: it is a close union, indeed, it is an indivisible unity for all units, all individual formations are identical, for in a sense all are identified with the only reality, the one supreme consciousness.
The soul-consciousness is the golden thread running through the chain of light and when it comes forward and becomes dynamic it gradually engulfs and purifies what was its covering, the life, the mind and the body and reforms them in its own light and energy expressing and embodying its divine truth and fulfilment here below.
1 It is not that the conscious intelligence of man is ignorant of the truth, his reason and higher perception surely sees and acknowledges it; but the life impulse that moves him, his spontaneous energy and instinct turns hint away from a dynamic recognition of what he otherwise should inspire his movements. The link with the past is of much greater strength than a possibility of the future.