The 20th century might well be described as the age of historical pessimism, of an all-pervading sense of anxiety, frustration, mal-adjustment and inner disintegration. Some of our deepest thinkers have concluded that there is no such thing as history, that is, no meaningful order can be seen in the broad sweep of human events. The English poet Auden described the modern man’s profound sense of restlessness and frustration in his Age of Anxiety in these words:
… crazed we come and coarsened we go
Our wobbling way: there’s white silence
Of antiseptics and instruments
At both ends, but a babble between
And a shame surely.1
Modern man has been alienated from God, from the world around him, from the society in which he lives and even from his own self. Sartre announced that God is dead to the modern man, and Goetz, one of the characters in his play le Diable et Ie Bon Dieu
I implored and begged for a gesture: I addressed my messages to Heaven: no response! Heaven does not know even my name. I used to ask myself all the time: what could I possibly be in the eyes of God? Now I know the answer: Nothing. God does not see me, God does not hear me, God does not know me. Dost thou see this void above our heads? This is God.2
Freud regarded the major religions of the world as “patently infantile, incongruous with reality”, while Karl Marx regarded religion itself as “the sign of the oppressed creature”, “the opiate of the people”, and “1 the false sun which revolves around him when he is not yet fully self-aware”.
Man is certainly alienated from the world around him. 17th century Cartesian philosophy deprived him of his social and religious context and thrust him into an I-centred culture. The Copernican and Newtonian revolutions in science convinced him that this is a dead, clock-work universe in which human beings, their hopes and struggles have no relevance at all. Marx saw man and society as bound by the immutable laws of history, Darwin saw evolution as a blind struggle in which only the fittest survive and Freud saw the human psyche as being at the mercy of the tempestuous forces of dark instinctive forces and thus each of these influential thinkers has contributed to this deepening of despair in man. Bertrand Russell gave voice to this unyielding despair when he wrote:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving: that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves, and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve the individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins…3
If this is man’s present, the prognosis for man’s future here on earth is equally dark and dismal. The opening paragraph of Fritzof Capra’s The Turning Point, provides a typical example of this:
At the beginning of the last two decades of our century we find ourselves in a state of profound, world-wide crisis. It is a complex, multi— dimensional crisis whose facets touch every aspect of our lives—our health and livelihood, the quality of our environment and our social relationship, our economy, technology, and politics. It is a crisis of intellectual, moral and spiritual dimensions; a crisis of a scale and urgency unprecedented in recorded human history. For the first time we have to face the real threat of extinction of the human race and of all life on this planet.4
There are many others who have referred to the grave threat of meaninglessness and alienation that pervades our lives as we approach the close of this century of technological miracles. Clouds of despair threaten us in every sphere of life — religious, scientific, political, economic and social. The fear of the psychological destruction of man is as chilling and real as the fear of physical destruction.
Koestler regards 6 August 1945, the day on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, as the most important date in the history of the human race because since that day mankind has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species. He thinks that the extinction of the human species cannot now be avoided much longer.
He gives two reasons for this conclusion. The first is that the devices of nuclear warfare are becoming more potent and easier to make and the proliferation of atomic weapons has made the global control of their manufacture impracticable. The other is the paranoid streak revealed by our past record. The human race, although admirable in some ways, is basically a very sick biological product, and its mental sickness has made its chances of prolonged survival very bleak. Koestler writes:
The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums. Tribal wars, religious wars, civil wars, dynastic wars, national wars, revolutionary wars, colonial wars, wars of conquest and liberation, wars to prevent and to end all wars, follow each other in a chain of compulsive repetitiveness as far as man can remember his past, and there is every reason to believe that the chain will extend into the future.5
The most striking indication of the pathology of our species is the contrast between its unique technological achievements and its equally unique incompetence in the conduct of social affairs. We can control the motions of satellites orbiting distant planets, we cannot control the situation in Northern Ireland.6
The threat of nuclear war is by no means the only one facing humanity today. The industrial world is busy building equally dangerous nuclear power plants that threaten to devastate life on our planet. After the euphoria about the use of ‘atoms for peace’, we are becoming painfully aware today that nuclear power is neither safe, nor clean, nor cheap. The hundreds of nuclear reactors operating in the world today have been releasing radioactive elements adding to the toxic materials that have already been discharged into the environment by nuclear explosions and reactor spills. They continue to accumulate in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Ghost ships carrying thousands of tons of toxic waste are traversing the world’s waterways looking for place to dump the killer waste.
There are a number of other terrors as well-threatening man today—the terrors of biochemical warfare, pollution and the population explosion are some of them. Not only has our physical environment deteriorated, its psychological atmosphere too has equally eroded. More and more countries are plagued by what are called ‘diseases of civilization’—heart diseases, cancer, stroke, AIDS, severe depression, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. Add to these the economic anomalies that seem to confound all our leading economists and politicians namely, rampant inflation, massive unemployment and gross maldistribution of income which have been causing constant political tensions in many parts of the world.
This story of woe has nothing new about it. No matter what man seeks to achieve, he soon finds that a blight has befallen it. Take his religion or his science. Is either of them an unmixed blessing? In some respects, are they not a bane? This then is the central problem of man’s existence. He seeks perfection and fulfilment here on earth, but all his attempts are continuously frustrated, though in each age, the reasons for the failure seem to be different. Economic, social and political revolutions have failed to bring about a real change in man’s lot on earth. Great religious leaders, saints and reformers have not been able to bring perfection to human life. In Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri, one of the principal characters, the God of Death, puts this gospel of the vanity of human existence forcefully as:
If heavens there are they are veiled in their own light,
If a Truth eternal somewhere reigns unknown,
It burns in a tremendous void of God;
For truth shines far from falsehoods of the world;
How can the heavens come down to unhappy earth
Or the eternal lodge in drifting time?
How shall the Ideal tread earth’s dolorous soil
Where life is only a labour and a hope,
A child of Matter and by Matter fed,
A fire flaming low in Nature’s grate,
A journey’s toilsome trudge with death for goal?
The Avatars have lived and died in vain,
Vain was the sage’s thought, the prophet’s voice;
In vain is seen the shining upward way.7
But although Sri Aurobindo was familiar with this pessimistic point of view, he had a different perspective on man and his future. At a time like this, among the very few voices which hold out hope for man and his future, the most convincing in its confidence is that of Sri Aurobindo. He has given us the assurance that no matter how tragic the present predicament, life is not ‘a tale told by an idiot’, that the world is not an unfortunate accident but a marvel slowly moving towards its expression and that the human condition can be transformed. In line after inspired line in Savitri Sri Aurobindo chases away this gloomy threat of death and extinction and floods our consciousness with waves of optimism and hope:
All then shall change, a magic order come
Overtopping this mechanical universe.
A mightier race shall inhabit the mortal’s world.
On Nature’s luminous tops, on the Spirit’s ground,
The superman shall reign as king of life,
Make earth almost the mate and peer of heaven,
And lead towards God and truth man’s ignorant heart
And lift towards godhead his mortality.
Then in the process of evolving Time
All shall be drawn into a single plan,
A divine harmony shall be earth’s law,
Beauty and joy remould her way to live:
Even the body shall remember God,
A divine force shall flow through tissue and cell
And take the charge of breath and speech and act
And all thoughts shall be a glow of suns
And every feeling a celestial thrill.
Nature shall live to manifest secret God,
The Spirit shall take up the human play,
This earthly life become the life divine.8
These inspired lines of mantric poetry are as much an announcement of as an invocation to this glorious future for mankind which Sri Aurobindo has seen and promised. But in these days when the ears of most of us are tuned only to the depressing whimper of the Waste Land, words of such optimism are mistaken for sentimental rhetoric. But sentimentalism is the last thing that one would ever associate with Sri Aurobindo. He was as tough-minded and pragmatic as any realist. He had no illusions about man as he is constituted today and he did not mask or gloss over the numerous evils which are immanent in the human situation. Those who are familiar with Savitri know how Aswapati had to dig deep and long mid the horror of filth and mire of the nether levels of human consciousness before he discovered the inner reason of hell. Towards the end of the poem, in the debate between Savitri and. the God of Death, we have some of the bleakest appraisals of human nature anywhere in world literature. These are hurled against the ideal of perfection that Savitri wishes to establish on earth. Here is an example:
More than anyone else, Sri Aurobindo was aware of the almost insurmountable difficulties of human nature. Yet unlike the Western thinkers I have cited, he was so full of optimism for the future of man. He pointed out that what man faces today is not just a social, political, economic, ecological or nuclear crisis but an evolutionary crisis. The highest power of consciousness at present available to man, namely, the mental consciousness, seems incapable of finding a way out of this crisis, and therefore these problems persist, often changing their outer form and look. There is no solution to these problems at the level of mental consciousness because in the first instance they are really products of the limitations of the mental consciousness.
According to Sri Aurobindo, the mind has achieved an enormous development in certain directions but in others it stands bewildered and no longer knows its way. Using the mind, man has created an organised way of life, of unmanageable hugeness and complexity, but it is all for the service of his mental and vital claims and urges.
Man has created a system of civilization which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilize and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and appetites.10
There is nothing in his mental consciousness that makes him look beyond the stress of economic and physical needs. He is engaged in cultivating a multiplication of new wants and an aggressive expansion of his collective ego. Science too has assisted him in this by putting into his hands great powers of the universal force but that which uses this universal force is a little, human, individual and communal ego.
All that is there is a chaos of clashing mental ideas, urges of individual and collective physical want and need, vital claims and desires, impulses of an ignorant life-push, hungers and calls for life satisfaction of individuals, classes, nations, a rich fungus of political and social and economic nostrums and notions, a hustling medley of slogans and panaceas for which men are ready to oppress and be oppressed, to kill and be killed…. 11
Some modern scientific-liberal thinkers like Koestler concur with Sri Aurobindo on one important point: they believe that humanity today is facing an evolutionary crisis. But their understanding of this crisis is quite different from Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of it, and out of this fundamental difference arises the radical difference in their prognosis for the future of man on earth.
Koestler has tried to explain the nature of this evolutionary crisis. He begins by observing that roughly two and a half millennia ago, in the 6th century bc, the Greeks embarked on the scientific adventure which eventually carried man to the moon; that is a most impressive growth curve indeed. Sixth century bc also saw the rise of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, but the 20th century has seen the ascensions of Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism: that is hardly a discernible growth-curve. So human progress seems to be purely an intellectual affair and in the moral sphere the development seems to be negligible during the last 2,500 years.
In looking for a reason for this, Koestler comes to the conclusion that the human species is essentially a flawed one, and he has a neuro-physiological explanation for this—the so-called Papez-Maclean theory of emotions, supposed to be supported by some thirty years of experimental research. According to this theory, the brains of humans and our closest relatives, the primates and other advanced mammals are triune, for they contain three evolutionary levels, which are to some extent functionally separable, though they act in concert. The first level is the ‘reptilian brain’, comprising the structures of the brain which man shares with the reptiles and which control man’s instinctive behaviour. The second is a collection of circuits called the ‘old mammalian brain’ which arose with the evolution of early mammals; this part of the brain is in control of the stream of feelings. The third is a set of circuits called the ‘new mammalian brain’ or the ‘neo-cortex’ which is specifically human and controls our stream of thought. The neo-cortex has been superimposed on the lower two levels of the brain without ensuring adequate coordination. “The result of this evolutionary blunder,” Koestler says, “is an uneasy coexistence, frequently erupting in acute conflict, between the deep ancestral structures of the brain, mainly concerned with instinctive and emotional behavior, and the neo-cortex which endowed man with language, logic and symbolic thought.” The resulting state of affairs has been summed up by Maclean in the following picturesque way:
Man finds himself in the predicament that nature has endowed him essentially with three brains which, despite great differences in structure, must function together and communicate with one another. The oldest of these brains is reptilian. The second has been inherited from the lower mammals, and the third is a late mammalian development, which … has made man peculiarly man. Speaking allegorically of these three brains within a brain, we might imagine that when the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.12
The ‘reptilian’ and ‘paleo-mammalian’ parts together form the so-called limbic system of the brain or the old brain while the neo-cortex or the new brain is a peculiarly human acquisition. The old brain, which controls our instincts, passions and biological drives seem hardly to have been touched by evolution. The neo-cortex, which endows man with his reasoning powers has expanded in the last half a million years at an explosive speed. As a result, the two brains, old and new, are not properly coordinated. The fury of our passionately held irrational beliefs and attachments drives us to savage behaviour, while reason sits unable to control that part of our life. The primitive old brain has unfortunately not been transformed in the course of evolution into the new brain; rather evolution has superimposed a new superior structure on an old one without providing the new brain with a clear-cut power of control over the old. Thus while our intellectual functions are carried on in the newest and most highly developed part of the brain, our affective behaviour continues to be dominated by a relatively crude and primitive system, by archaic structures in the brain which have undergone little change in the course of evolution from mouse to man.
According to Koestler, the imbalance of the triune brain explains all the aberrant behaviour and paranoia of the human species. Man may be superior to other species in his native equipment but he suffers from a serious fault in the circuitry of his nervous system. This evolutionary blunder is not something that we can ever correct, and its effects will forever cast a shadow on the future of mankind, although Koestler is hopeful that someday we may be able to discover a combination of benevolent enzymes which enable the neo-cortex to veto the follies of the archaic brain!
The theory of the triune brain has won many advocates but it also has its critics who point out that functions are interchanged between brain structures during evolution. Similarities in structure and function remain, but no part of the human brain remains truly unchanged. Maclean’s R-complex, or Reptilian brain, is unquestionably the oldest part of the brain, but say critics, it is no longer a reptilian brain, but simply a part of the human brain. Maclean’s doctrine seems more a point of view than a theory, but it is instructive, especially in the study of the psychology of human behaviour.
In spite of all its impressive scientific terminology the Papez-Maclean explanation of the human predicament, which has impressed Koestler so much, is not any sharper than the one offered by Sri Aurobindo in The Human Cycle. Raising the general question about what precisely is the defect from which all this imperfection in man springs, he provides the answer that man seems to have a double nature: his vital and physical being is of an animal nature and lives according to its instincts, impulses and desires; his intellectual, ethical and aesthetic being seems to be of a half-divine nature. The aim of the animal part in man is to increase his vital possession and enjoyment; the aim of the semi-divine part in him is to possess and enjoy the world through the powers of the mind, but more importantly, to grow into the true, the good and the beautiful. This is the unique distinction of man. Unlike the animal world, man has an inherent obligation to bring the whole of his nature under the control of his higher nature. In doing this lies his swadharma, the law of his being and his happiness. But so far he has failed to achieve this fully. He has to some extent laid the yoke of the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic rule on his vital and physical parts and this has made it impossible for him to be merely the human animal. But more he has not been able to do successfully. The transformation of his life into the image of the true, the good and the beautiful seems as far off as ever. He has come near some imperfect part of it at times, but he has never succeeded in transforming himself. Sri Aurobindo suggests why:
The main failure, the root of the whole failure indeed, is that he has not been able to shift upward what we have called the implicit will central to his life, the force and assured faith inherent in its main power of action. His central will of life is still situated in his vital and physical being, its drift is towards vital and physical enjoyment, enlightened indeed and checked to a certain extent in its impulses by the higher powers, but enlightened only and very partially, not transformed—checked, not dominated and uplifted to a higher plane. The higher life is still only a thing superimposed on the lower, a permanent intruder upon our normal existence. The intruder interferes constantly with the normal life, scolds, encourages, discourages, lectures, manipulates, readjusts, lifts up only to let fall, but has no power to transform, alchemise, recreate.13
The higher nature in man tries to control the lower nature, but succeeds only minimally. The will in action, the central drive in our life still comes from our lower being, from the animal and vital nature of the animal being in us. The animal nature is the equivalent of the crocodile brain and the vital nature is the equivalent of the horse brain in the Papez-Maclean hypothesis. Sri Aurobindo points out that our higher nature is a superimposition on our lower nature, and it has so far failed to convert or control the latter fully. This is true also of the neo-cortex with respect to the limbic system of the brain in the Papez-Maclean theory.
Sri Aurobindo’s theory of the human predicament today turns out to be a more satisfactory explanation than that of Papez-Maclean. His theory explains why man cannot find fulfilment, as the animal does, in indulging his animal nature alone, and why he has this obligation to transform his life into the image of the true, the good and the beautiful. Moreover, man for Sri Aurobindo does not represent an evolutionary blunder; he represents a higher adventure of consciousness than the animal, a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder; but since he is a transitional being, man cannot afford to rest content with his manhood—with the undoubted strengths and undeniable weaknesses of the mental consciousness.
The Papez-MacLean theory draws pointed attention to the fact that man carries within him as his biological heritage an unevolved part of his brain. But this need not be looked upon as an evolutionary blunder. We may regard it as a part of our biological inheritance which still needs to be transformed, and once transformed, it may prove to be a valuable resource. The physical energy of the crocodile nature and the vital dynamism of the horse nature may prove to be very great assets to man when he is able to transform them by ridding them of their animal lusts and propensities while retaining their dynamism and energy. Thus what is regarded as a fatal weakness in the human make-up by the Papez-Maclean theory can be seen as a potential source of strength within Sri Aurobindo’s theory.
For Sri Aurobindo, man is not an evolutionary blunder but an evolutionary adventure which has yet to reach its glorious destination. He has told us:
Man is a transitional being, he is not final…. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth’s evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner Spirit and the logic of Nature’s process.15
The Mother comments on this evolutionary intention:
There is an ascending evolution in nature which goes from the stone to the plant, from the plant to the animal, from the animal to man. Because man is, for the moment, the last rung at the summit of the ascending evolution, he considers himself as the final stage in this ascension and believes there can be nothing on earth superior to him. In this he is mistaken. In his physical nature he is yet almost wholly an animal, a thinking and speaking animal, but still an animal in his material habits and instincts. Undoubtedly, nature cannot be satisfied with such an imperfect result; she endeavours to bring out a being who will be to man what man is to the animal, a being who will remain a man in its external form, and yet whose consciousness will rise far above the mental and its slavery to ignorance.16
It is obvious that mind at present does not have the power to solve the riddle of man’s double nature. Over the centuries humanity has tried every possible remedy; it has tried religion, ethics, education, science, social reform, political reform and revolution. Nothing seems to have worked.
In the 19th century, science and technology together succeeded in discrediting traditional religions and replacing them by secular humanism. Now some of the leading humanists have become so desperate that they are looking to religion once again to rescue mankind from the despair of meaninglessness and the threat of extinction.
Religion was, and even now is, expected by some to be the panacea for all the ills that besiege humanity. Some of the driving force behind today’s religious fundamentalism comes from this hope. It is important to note here that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother do not subscribe to this hope. If anything, they are of the opinion that religion in the form we have known it has already become anachronistic. They advocate a return to the spiritual core of all religions. It, therefore, comes to me as a surprise that many people have refused to look into Sri Aurobindo because he is mistakenly believed to be a religious leader. If only they would read what he has said about religion, it would prove an effective antidote to all religious fundamentalism.
Let us now take a brief look at Sri Aurobindo’s critique of traditional religions. Religion is supposed to have the power to build a bridge between spiritual truth and our vital and material existence. Under the influence of powerful leaders it has tried to subordinate and reconcile the lower to the higher, make life serviceable to god, the earth obedient to heaven. But it has ignored the spiritual core at its centre and oppressed the thinking mind with its theological dogmas. Instead of lifting the human heart on the wings of love for one’s fellow men, it has submerged it in pietistic emotionalism. It has beguiled its adherents with a plethora of hollow ceremonies and arid meaningless rituals. At its worst it has driven men to fanaticism, homicidal fury and savage exploitation and oppression of the gullible masses. The worst kind of economic and social oppression has been associated with religion. Moreover, religion has often cut existence into two by dividing knowledge, works, art and life itself into two categories, the spiritual and the worldly, the religious and the mundane. As a result, religion has alienated itself from the progressive impulses in science and the arts and even turned hostile to them. Religion has often been an oppressive and negative force in human life. Needless to say, modern religion, like science and technology, has also proved to be a god that failed.
During the early part of this century, education was widely looked upon as the saviour of mankind. Education was expected to produce intelligent, thinking citizens who would be capable of controlling their emotions, instincts and appetites by their reason and by organising their social and economic life in a civilised way. This unfortunately has proved to be so only in theory. In practice it has been found that education and intellectual training by themselves cannot change man; they only provide the individual and the collective ego with better information and more efficient weapons for self-affirmation and self-aggrandisement. The bloodiest wars in history were in fact fought between the most educated nations of their time. Education only made these wars more savage.
It is not necessary here to examine how other solutions have also failed. People even now put great faith in moral and ethical movements. As Sri Aurobindo has pointed out, an ethical rule merely puts a bit in the mouth of the wild horses of nature; and exercises over them a difficult and partial control, but it has no power to transform them.
What then is the solution? The solution according to Sri Aurobindo is the transference of our centre of living to a higher consciousness; this will lead to a change in the nature of the main power that provides dynamism to our life. In other words, the central driving power of life must be transferred from our lower being to our higher being. This will require, as Sri Aurobindo has pointed out, a leap in the evolution of consciousness, an evolutionary ascent more momentous than that which nature must have taken when it rose from the vital mind of the animal to the thinking human mind.
“Man is a transitional being; he is not final,” said Sri Aurobindo and he was clear and emphatic about the future course of our evolutionary development:
We mean by man mind imprisoned in a living body. But mind is not the highest possible power of consciousness; for mind is not in possession of Truth, but only its ignorant seeker. Beyond mind is a supramental or gnostic power of consciousness that is in eternal possession of Truth. This supermind is at its source the dynamic consciousness, in its nature at once and inseparably infinite wisdom and infinite will of the divine Knower and Creator. Supermind is superman; a gnostic supermanhood is the next distinct and triumphant evolutionary step to be reached by earthly nature. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in earth’s evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of nature’s process….17
About the consciousness of the superman, he explained:
Supermanhood is not man climbed to his own natural zenith, not a superior degree of human greatness, knowledge, power, intelligence, will, character, genius, dynamic force, saintliness, love, purity or perfection. Supermind is something beyond mental man and his limits; it is a greater consciousness than the highest consciousness proper to human nature.18
The problem then is one of effecting a radical transmutation of the entrenched, ancestral animality of human life. No ethical pottering or patchwork, no idealistic moral re-armament or surface tinkering with the nature of man can bring about this transformation. Traditional spirituality can at best help a few people to liberate their consciousness into some kind of transcendental peace or bliss; it can do nothing to radically transform their lower nature to change the world from its present state of darkness, ignorance and suffering. We have seen this repeatedly in human history. With his lusts, greed and savage instincts, it does not take much effort to arouse the animal in man.
In her attempt to open up the inner being, nature has followed four main lines: religion, occultism, spiritual thought and an inner experience and spiritual realisation. Of these, only spiritual experience and realisation have the power to change the mental being into a spiritual being.
‘Spirit’ and ‘spirituality’ are concepts which are often misunderstood even in India today. By ‘spirit’ Sri Aurobindo does not mean a power, however fine, of the mind. “Spirituality,” he says, “is not a high intellectuality, not idealistic, not an ethical turn of mind or moral purity and austerity, not religiosity or an ardent and exalted emotional fervour, not even a compound of all these excellent things.” However helpful they may be to human progress, they still belong to the mental evolution.
Spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul, which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth into or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.19
Similarly, the term Yoga is commonly misunderstood in the West and even in India. For Sri Aurobindo it does no refer primarily to a set of physical postures or breathing exercises. Rather, yoga is a cover term for a range of mainly psychological disciplines used for bringing about a change in human consciousness, enabling man to realise his spiritual potential. ‘Evolution’, as it is popularly understood, is a biological concept used to explain the gradual emergence of more and more complex forms beginning with matter and ending with man. For Sri Aurobindo, evolution is essentially an evolution of consciousness, which is then expressed outwardly in more complex biological forms and functions. It was his distinctive contribution that he was able to show that yoga and evolution are but two perspectives on a single process. S. K. Maitra20 has drawn attention to this meeting of the East and the West in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. The Eastern concept of yoga and the Western concept of evolution merge into one another in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy to find their perfect fulfilment.
Sri Aurobindo defines yoga as “a methodised effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the potentialities latent in the being and a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos. But all life, when we look behind its appearances, is a vast yoga of Nature attempting to realise her perfection in an ever increasing expression of her potentialities and to unite herself with her own divine reality.”21 Until the appearance of man, nature’s thinker, evolution was a subconscious yoga of nature, in man it becomes a conscious Yoga. Nature has so far taken three upward steps of ascent—matter, life and mind—and is preparing man to rise to beyond Mind to higher levels of consciousness. The next stage in evolution is an ascent to what Sri Aurobindo called the Supermind or the supramental consciousness.
In Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, which he called ‘Integral Yoga’, there is no attempt made to jump straight into the heart of the divine, leaving the body, life energies and mind to their imperfection. Sri Aurobindo’s yoga does not lead to the dissolution and absorption of the individual; it gives him a new birth that enables him to play his part in the cosmic evolution as a channel of the Divine’s will. Yoga is thus a path to the highest form of divine existence possible on earth. The ideal of ‘Integral Yoga’ is not only a radical change of consciousness and spiritual outlook but an integral supramental transformation including the transmutation of the mind, life and body. In other words it is evolutionary in its ideal.
‘Integral Yoga’ treats body, life and mind as instruments of divine activity on earth. The Spirit manifests itself through these media. If this is to happen all parts of our existence including even the lowest, must undergo a complete supramental transformation. The integral divine transformation of our existence here in our body on earth is the unique feature of ‘Integral Yoga’, the characteristic that marks it off from all other systems of spiritual discipline.
There is already some scholarly writing devoted to the study of Sri Aurobindo’s concept of evolution and yoga and the emergence of the supramental consciousness. There are a number of studies comparing Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual notion of evolution with the mechanistic, vitalistic and other Western theories of evolution of philosophers such as Loyd Morgan, Samuel Alexander, Hegel, Smuts and Whitehead. There are also studies comparing Sri Aurobindo and the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin with particular reference to their views on the future evolution of man.
And yet misunderstandings about what Sri Aurobindo has said are many. For some people his concept of the superman is not acceptable because Nietzsche used the term, and it became associated with Nazism; however, although it has aptly been pointed out that Nietzsche’s superman had a Titan’s ego where Sri Aurobindo’s superman transcended the ego and realised his oneness with all his fellow men. For others the very notion of a supramental consciousness seems bizarre because they feel that it is all in some sense unnatural or abnormal. Some people find even the notion of physical immortality repulsive.
Then there is the usual argument of the positivists, who question the usefulness of the supramental quest. They note that the supermind is not something that is going to be accessible to us in the near future, at least not in our lifetime. Its coming is still in the distant future, how distant we do not know for certain. But in the meanwhile we have urgent problems confronting man on all sides. There is hunger, poverty, lack of housing and medical care. Children are dying in the hundreds of thousands every year for want of nutritionally adequate food. Then there are the terrors of a nuclear holocaust, of population explosion, of pollution and ecological disaster. When we are threatened by so many of these problems would it not be unwise to busy ourselves at this juncture in our history with something as vague and distant as the supramental consciousness?
I think the answer to this question is not too difficult to find. Men have attempted social, political, economic and moral reforms from times immemorial. It is not as if reformers and do-gooders have appeared on the earth for the first time now. They have always been around, zealously trying to improve the physical world. But they found that getting something done in the material world, such as procuring food for each and every person, clothing and housing for all, is very difficult indeed—a most daunting ideal. The ideal nearest to earth is for some mysterious reason not always the easiest to achieve or the first thing to be done. We see again and again that simple, innocent-looking social and economic changes are difficult to carry out because they bring in their train quite disproportionately gestures and movements of violence and revolution. This is because we seek to cure in these cases symptoms and not touch the root of the disease. For even the most innocent-looking social, economic and political abuse has as its base far reaching attitudes and life-urges that have to be sought out and tackled first. Even in mundane matters our reformers do not dig enough or rise high enough.22
It is not sufficiently recognised that the critical issue confronting mankind is not outer but inner. The issue has always been the limits of human consciousness. Most problems certainly have outer manifestations; they have physical, cultural, political, ecological implications but they all arise because of the constraints on our inner culture, on our vision, in other words, on our consciousness. The irony is that we try to change everything else but ourselves and our consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo has given humanity the highest ideal that was ever conceived. It cannot be ignored any longer. The ideal of a divine life on earth may be difficult and its accomplishment distant. But Sri Aurobindo has shown that the inner being of man everywhere is preoccupied with it. And he has shown that it is the only solution. The force that will make this ideal a reality, we have been repeatedly assured by the Mother, is already at work in the earth’s atmosphere. She has also told us that “Sri Aurobindo came to tell the world of the beauty of the future that must be realised. He came to give not a hope but a certitude of the splendour towards which the world moves. The world is not an unfortunate accident, it is a marvel which moves towards its expression.”23 She has also said, “Sri Aurobindo has come on earth not to bring a teaching or a creed in competition with previous creeds or teachings, but to show the way to overpass the past and open concretely the route towards an imminent and inevitable future.”24
NOTES ON THE TEXT
1. Quoted by Jugal Kishore Mukherjee: From Man Human to Man Divine, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry, p. 182.
2. ibid. p. 184.
3. Bertrand Russell: ‘A Freeman’s Worship’ in Mysticism and Logic, p. 45.
4. Fritzof Capra: The Turning Point.
5. Arthur Koestler: Janus, Hutchinson of London, 1978, pp. 2-3.
6. ibid. p. 3.
7. Sri Aurobindo: Savitri (SABCL Vol. 29), p. 609.
8. ibid. pp. 706-710
9. ibid. p. 634.
10. Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine (SABCL Vol. 19), p. 1054.
11. ibid. p. 1054
12. Quoted in Arthur Kostler: Janus, Hutchinson of London, 1978, p. 9.
13. Sri Aurobindo: The Human Cycle (SABCL Vol. 15 ), p. 222.
14. ibid. p.
15. Sri Aurobindo: The Hour of God (SABCL Vol. 17), p. 7.
16. The Mother: Collected Works of the Mother Vol. 12, p. 116.
17. Sri Aurobindo: The Hour of God (SABCL Vol. 17), p. 7.
18. ibid. p. 7.
19. Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine (SABCL Vol. 18-19), p. 857.
20. S. K. Maitra: The Meeting of the East and the West in Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy.
21. Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga (SABCL Vol. 20), p. 2.
22. I owe this idea to Nolini Kanta Gupta.
23. The Mother: Collected Works of the Mother Vol. 13, p. 15.
24. The Mother: Collected Works of the Mother Vol. 13, p. 4.
This is an edited transcript of the talk, delivered as a Navajata Memorial Annual Lecture at Pondicherry University in 1988. It originally appeared at the book “India’s Spiritual Destiny: Its Inevitability and Potentiality”, 2006.