SRI AUROBINDO AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

 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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.

 

What is central to Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the future is the identity of the human being. Effecting a decisive revisioning of the Enlightenment’s definition of man as a rational being, he sets the agenda for the future: “Man is a transitional being.”[4] Man is not stable, a species definable by his existing faculties or empirically representable. The human is defined by his orientation towards the future and his power of self-creation. In saying this, Sri Aurobindo becomes aligned with the philosophy of existentialism and one can hear in him the echo of Nietzsche’s call for the self-exceeding of man into the superman. But Sri Aurobindo’s superman is not grounded in the hubris of human will. Though one may say that in Nietzsche too, the human will is only an aspect of the will-to-become intrinsic to reality, no ground of infinite plenitude or self-existent perfection supports, invites or responds to this will in Nietzsche’s case. In Sri Aurobindo, the power of human self-exceeding is an aspiration, individually co-creative with a spiritual power of Becoming, active everywhere in the universe and transcending it, that is responsible for the great hours of evolutionary change. This power of becoming carries the self-existent ranges of conscious Being, the living images of perfection proper to each rung of consciousness, which may manifest at every stage of earthly evolution, and which seeks for a fully conscious manifestation here. A double process of involution and evolution, and correspondingly, of pressure from above and expression from below, or of aspiration from below and descent from above propels the universal manifestation of consciousness on earth. At the level of the human this process becomes individually conscious and seeks an embodied fulfillment of its origin, the individualized ascent to the consciousness of the Idea which has become all this manifestation and the descent of this consciousness bringing its own perfect unity, freedom and creativity into the laws of the manifestation.

 

Here, one may say Sri Aurobindo seems to rub shoulders with Hegel and other philosophers of evolution who see Consciousness involved in earth and evolving through history. But this resemblance again is partial. Whereas the Hegelian Idea works out its inexorable syntheses using nature and humanity deterministically as instruments, with no occult process of the aspiration of Ignorance from below and the response of a self-existent Knowledge above or of the resistance of a conscious denial in the Ignorance, what one may call Falsehood, rendering the emergence of consciousness precarious, Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of evolution uncovers the arduous agency of becoming in the Ignorance and particularly in the human individual. Moreover, the Hegelian Idea remains rational, a post-Enlightenment notion of consciousness reaching its full expression and its identity of being in collective human “understanding” and therein reaching the “end of history”[5]; while for Sri Aurobindo, the Idea involved in the processes of history is what he terms the “Real-Idea” of Supermind, a faculty and operation of consciousness from which Mind is derived and whose properties of infinite freedom and wholeness mind aspires to but can never experientially comprehend, except through its self-transcendence.

 

It is in this positing of Supermind as the ontological foundation of superman, that Sri Aurobindo travels furthest from the western tradition of philosophy as speculative metaphysics, and brings to its disciplinary formulations a revisionary power rooted in the history of Indian thought – the subservience of thinking to intuition and experience, both in the ground of theorizing and in the goal of validation. Here we realize that even in his method of philosophizing, Sri Aurobindo sketches out a direction for the future of humanity – a trans-cultural thinking, which couples our boldest intuitions and their consequences to a power of realization through a discipline of experience. As mentioned above, this future-gazing redefinition of the scope of human identity as a dynamic self-creation, and redefinition of the role of thinking as wedded to such a notion of identity had already made its appearance in the western tradition through Nietzsche and following him, through a number of new fields of philosophy, such as phenomenology, the philosophy of experience, and ontology, the philosophy of being. But the fledgeling attempts to create new disciplinary boundaries by these fields and in a radical way, establish philosophy as an alternate or subjective science, had long been anticipated in the Indian tradition, where thought formulation of the being and becoming of man and the universe and their mutual relationship with a transcendental ground of consciousness (darshana) had always been an inseparable younger sibling of an applied psychology of experience (yoga), leading to ontological change.

 

If Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy can be contextualized within the history of western philosophy and shown to break new ground both conceptually and methodologically there, it is equally a native of the tradition of Indian darshana and makes an equally ground-breaking contribution there, which pertains principally to the future of humanity. 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.

 

If Philosophy and Psychology can be thought of as the principal moulds in which Sri Aurobindo has presented his formulation of human identity and its scope and possibilities of self-transcendence, his vision of the future extends from this basis to the social forms and expressions required to give collective body to this process of self-exceeding. This vein of Sri Aurobindo’s thinking certainly needs further study, since in his works on social and political theory – viz. The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity - he proceeds to explore both the micro dimension of city states and autonomous communities and the macro dimensions of political governance, whether of nations or of continental and world unities of the future. Sri Aurobindo makes the distinction between constructed and administered unities such as  empires and nation-states and the psychological unity of a people with a shared history and culture, which may develop an autonomous collective soul-personality, such as what he calls nation-soul. These organic unities are evolving trajectories of the world-soul in its movement towards a transcendental integrality. Today, such an idea as that of the “nation-soul” is likely to be viewed with suspicion due to the deep traumas of chauvinistic nationalism, racial or cultural imperialism, ethnic cleansing and the like which have continued to mark the modern era ever since the alarming advent of Nazi Germany. Sri Aurobindo anticipates such abuse of the idea in a masterful chapter titled “True and False Subjectivism”[6] in The Human Cycle, pointing to the essential identity of all souls, whether individual or collective, the need to make a distinction between the group soul and the group ego and the principle of unity in diversity which he sees as the basis of the world evolution. Thus fraternal relationship, creative cultural dialog and syntheses and voluntary confederation are the desirable processes he sees between all levels of such unities leading to an organized world unity. In today’s world, many of the ideas introduced in Sri Aurobindo’s early 20th c. social texts are in the making, highlighting the futurism of his vision. The economic interdependence of the world has spawned the vector of continental unity, the first example of which we see in the EEC. In his Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo has a chapter titled ‘The United States of Europe’ which is prescient of just such a development.[7] Moreover, the need for global intervention in peacekeeping, facilitated settlement of inter-national disputes and the protection of basic human, cultural and ecological properties and rights is stronger than ever, pointing to the imperative need for a stronger impartial world organ with true international representation, such as the United Nations. Additionally, individual lives, metropolitan cities and intentional communities worldwide have been impacted by globalization and telecommunication to an extent where national belongings and boundaries have been rendered porous, and trans-national interactions and identities are in the making. Here, too, the danger of commercial co-optation and human conditioning in the name of globalization are pressing dangers against which Sri Aurobindo warns; and experiments in evolving collective consciousness, based on a strengthening and development of the inner life and its expressions, focus on sustainability, production primarily for satisfying community needs and a selective interface with the world market, open to innovations and idea currents facilitating inner needs, as with the ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo or the planetary city, Auroville, founded by Sri Aurobindo’s collaborator, the Mother are indicators of future possibilities for fostering the social conditions preparing the life divine.

 

Another area of human activity and expression where Sri Aurobindo has left his tracks towards the future is that of Poetry. In an age of technological dominance, when poetry is mostly thought of as an irrelevant and eccentric pastime or a “useless” luxury of the idle rich or at best an interesting curiosity practiced by the swiftly disappearing tribe of counter-cultural bohemians, Sri Aurobindo’s choice of poetry as a human activity to lavish his serious attention on may raise some eyebrows or worse, be indulgently ignored. But to do so is to ignore also the revaluation of culture implied in this choice. In Sri Aurobindo’s vision, no multiplication of external technological means, however powerful, and whether seen as the paradigm behind material products and devices or behind various forms of optimistic (or dangerous) human tinkering – genetic, economic, social, political or environmental engineering – can take the place of the growth and transformation of human consciousness as the fundamental lever of individual and social change towards the manifestation of an ideal future. If the applied psychology of yoga is the primary means for such change, the most basic self-representation of this evolving consciousness, whether as personal awareness or as social currency, is language. In the words of the modern German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (who follows in the wake of Nietzsche in redefining human identity and the role and mode of thinking), “Language is the house of Being.”[8] By this he means that the language of a people affords access to the ground of their existence in a certain form. Even seen only as a social convention, language discloses and conceals Being. Infinite being appears only to the measure and in the shape given to it by language. But beyond social convention, language has mysterious powers, words and constructions may have connotational density, allusive turns, primordial sound values and rhythms relating them to universal movements of consciousness, suggestive metaphorical and archetypal imagery and revelatory intuitive messages. In ancient cultures, the magicians of language, the vates of Europe, the rishi of India, the shaman of Central Asia, mobilized these resources of language to bring to appearance and to subjective experience, states of being outside the pale of normal human experience. This is the archaic basis of poetry. Sri Aurobindo sees the development of a power of language adequate to one’s growth of consciousness as an instrumental necessity in the transformation of individual and social consciousness. All his writing is of this order and puts into practice powers of communication keyed to the awakening of the universal and transcendental identity that sleeps as the forgotten memory of the original Involution within all beings. Nolini Kanta Gupta, one of the earliest disciples of Sri Aurobindo, refers to his word as a “consciousness photon”, a unit of divine light which grants inner understanding. In the field of writing, Sri Aurobindo considers poetry to be a hyper-conscious use of language approximating the native power of spirit to communicate its own self-manifestation whether of things that exist or that are yet to be born. This is the mantra. Restricted to hieratic use by initiates in past traditions, Sri Aurobindo opens up the elements of this possibility as a general ideal of language use for the future. Sri Aurobindo theorizes this possibility in another cross-cultural text, The Future Poetry, which assimilates the history of English poetry through the selective filter of the elements of mantric utterance. Such an utterance is related, as mentioned, to a growth of consciousness into the higher ranges of universal mind, reaching up to the global spiritual consciousness of what Sri Aurobindo calls the Overmind. Sri Aurobindo, in his own poetry puts to practice this writing of the future poetry. Particularly, in his cosmic epic, Savitri, he attempts to materialize an Overmental power of mantric expression communicating experiences of an unthinkable height and potency through devices which go well beyond the present power of human analysis. To orient ourselves to these kinds of utterance, open to the inner experiences carried by them, learn to be sensitive to their differences in quality of consciousness, use them as means for contacting higher realms and develop our own instruments of speech and writing to embody them are the invitation Sri Aurobindo makes to us towards the development of an adequate individual and social medium of communication and experience for the future.

 

From all of the above, we see how Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to the future of humanity is all-encompassing, profound and horizon-extending. Sri Aurobindo redefines the human being as a future-oriented transitional being; he sets the goal of humanity as the highest achievement it is presently capable of setting for its future, the evolution into a new species of divine beings collectively manifesting a divine life on earth; he revises the scope of human disciplines of knowledge-seeking and expression to reflect such a future-orientation and aid in its realization; and he presents a wide and flexible blueprint for the achievement of such a future. Finally, Sri Aurobindo is himself  the example in being, life and works of one who has “hew(n) the ways of Immortality”[9] for such a future for humanity, and the continuing influence, help and power in the journey of humanity towards this superhuman future.



[1] Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo On Himself, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972, p.4.

[2] The Mother, Message on Sri Aurobindo, 14th February, 1961, Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 13, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Pondicherry, 1985, p.4.

[3] Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Book III, Canto Four, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972, p. 343.

[4]Man is a transitional being; he is not final. For in man and high beyond him ascend the radiant degrees that rise to a divine supermanhood. There lies our destiny and the liberating key to our aspiring but troubled and limited mundane existence. “ Sri Aurobindo, “Man a Transitional Being”, The Hour of God, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972, p. 7

[5] A contemporary version of this Hegelian idea may be seen in the work of Francis Fukuyama. See Fukuyama, The En d of History and the Last Man, Penguin Books, London, 1992.

[6] Sri  Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, Chapter V, “True and False Subjectivism” in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and War and Self-Determination, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1970, pp. 37-47.

[7] Sri  Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Chapter X, “The United States of Europe” in The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and War and Self-Determination, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1970, pp. 324-333.

 

[8] Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” (1946) in Pathmarks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 239.

[9] Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Book I, Canto Two, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972, p. 17.