SRI AUROBINDO’S INTEGRAL EDUCATION
IN CONTEMPORARY HIGHER EDUCATION
I – Theory of Integral Education
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was a modern Indian philosopher (rishi) and spiritual personality (yogi) who practiced and taught a Neo-Vedantic system of spiritual discipline which he termed Integral Yoga. The goal of this discipline could be thought of as an attempt to integrate the discontinuous and fragmented human personality and to exceed it through spiritual union with a higher universal and transcendental consciousness. In his words: “Man is there to affirm himself in this universe, that is his first business, but also to evolve and finally to exceed himself: he has to change his partial being into a complete being, his partial consciousness into an integral consciousness.” As may be inferred from his universalistic use of the term “man,” Sri Aurobindo did not see this goal as merely an individual one, but one which pertained to the human species. Any individual effort and achievement of an integral consciousness, needs thus to be seen in the context of a social transformation, not merely as an esoteric practice and fulfillment.
Integral Yoga and Integral Education
Thus Sri Aurobindo envisages the goal of human becoming as a transformed society and civilization based on the expressions of an integral consciousness. However, in keeping with the collective dimension of this goal, a transformed society was envisaged by him not merely as the end result of individual transformations, but as the dynamically transforming life-context or field which would allow and facilitate individual transformation. Seen from this standpoint, the social discipline of education, meant to “socialize,” “in-form” and inculcate the cultural, knowledge and epistemological skills of the social habitus for individual engagement takes on a changed meaning related to a new phenomenology, epistemology and teleology of human and social becoming. Integral Education then becomes a socially acknowledged and authorized praxis of the Integral Yoga or at least the pedagogical condition for its social possibility and collective transformation.
In terms of his personal experience of higher education, Sri Aurobindo came into contact with the pedagogical structure and methodology practiced at Cambridge University, England, where he took his Tripos in the Classics. Later, in India, he taught and served as Vice-Principal at the Baroda College (1899-1906) and was the Principal of the Bengal National College (1906-07). His writings on education appeared mostly as articles in the Bengali nationalist paper Karmayogin (1909-10) and in the serialized journal Arya (1920). The term Integral Education, in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, was used by his spiritual collaborator, the Mother, in a message to the Indian Education Commission (1964) and there connoted an education which integrated Spirit and Matter, redressing the lop-sided materialistic basis of modern education. The Mother’s directorship of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education and her conversations and talks relating to the founding and operations of this institution along with Sri Auroboindo’s writings referred to above have become the bases for our present understanding of Integral Education and the principles for its implementation.
In a nutshell, Integral Education envisages an emphasis in the development of the faculties and inner psychological conditions of knowledge acquisition and expression and the development of the skills to engage with and transform society. The human personality is seen as a mental-vital-physical complex which needs integration around the soul or psychic being and this integrated instrument then put to the use of the Spiritual and Supramental consciousness. One may see this as identical in scope with the Integral Yoga, but attempted through the social facilitation process of education. The training of each of the parts of the being, as expressive instruments, with an emphasis on the emergence of the soul as the central evolving principle in human beings is the heart of this form of education. This is accomplished through an appropriate mentorship process, and through what has been termed a “free progress” system of individualized curriculum selection and self-paced learning.
Principles of a “True Education”
The roots of Sri Aurobindo’s theory of Integral Education go back to his writings on national education in the first decade of the 20th c. The foundations of educational practice articulated by him during this period and seen as the cornerstone of his Integral Education by later proponents are what he calls the three principles of a true and living education. A perusal of these principles reveals the social and psychological bases of his conception. The first of these three principles is perhaps the most radical. It says: “The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught.” Here Sri Aurobindo presents the teacher’s role as that of a mentor helping the student to learn how to acquire knowledge for himself or herself. But what is more radical is that the source of knowledge is indicated as being “within” the student. The teacher should help the student to perfect his instruments of knowledge and show him how he can draw on this knowledge within at will, so it can be “habituated to rise to the surface.” A few questions rise immediately from the statement of this principle: What is the nature or mode of this knowledge? What are the instruments of knowledge? What is the inner location of knowledge and what is the process by which it is acquired?
Phenomenology of Non-Dualism
The Vedantic basis of this theory of knowledge is easy to discern. By the time Sri Aurobindo was writing these nationalistic articles on education, he had already passed through major ontological shifts which may be characterized as spiritual and cosmic. Thus he was familiar in more than a theoretical way with the Upanishadic difference between Knowledge (Vidya) and Ignorance (Avidya) or between “higher” (para) and “lower” (apara) forms of knowledge. These distinctions are central to the epistemology of the Upanishads. They arise from a phenomenology of non-dualism as the foundation for “Knowledge” (Vidya), sometimes known as “higher knowledge” (para vidya) as opposed to the dualism of the “normal” human structure of knowing, which can only provide an indirect knowledge or a form of Ignorance (Avidya), also sometimes known in Vedantic literature as “lower knowledge” (apara vidya). Thus a normative distinction was established between two forms of knowledge and knowledge acquisition – one derived by mental processes acting on the evidence of the senses and the other acquired through identity of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo would later characterize these forms of knowledge by their means of acquisition as knowledge by outer or “indirect contact” and “knowledge by identity.” These have also been called forms of indirect and direct knowledge (paroksha and pratyaksha). In The Life Divine, where he presents this distinction, Sri Aurobindo introduces also a third and intermediate kind of knowledge, which he terms knowledge by inner or “direct contact.” Evidently, the support for the statement that nothing can be taught comes from this distinction. Analogous to Plato’s understanding of human representation as one of “making copies of copies,” teaching in the established pedagogical sense, can be seen in this light to be a second level of indirection – representations and interpretations of a reality and its constituents that will remain in-themselves unknowable to us by dint of their ontologically transcendental status.
To Enlightenment philosophers like Kant in the western academy, there was no alternative to this basis of knowledge. While acknowledging the unbridgeable division between subject and object that this implied, it affirmed the universality of human reason as the human property of making a reasonable home for itself and its kind in an unknowable world. But to Sri Aurobindo, there was an alternative. As part of the revisioning of a postcolonial India, Sri Aurobindo’s educational theory needs to be understood as a critique of the episteme of modernity based in an alternate Vedantic epistemology and personal experience affirming this cultural knowledge. And as befits the incipient globalism of (colonial) modernity, this critique is not innocent of its postcolonial intent being also a postmodern potential – a revisioning of the basis of “Enlightenment” in the Age of Enlightenment. Thus, Sri Aurobindo’s “nothing can be taught” addresses at once the hubris of colonialism, western civilizational superiority and its “white man’s burden” of “teaching” the non-western native the enlightened ways of reason; and its replacement by the Vedantic norm of acceptable knowledge as that alone which can be known by identity of consciousness from within.
The Sandilya Upanishad offers a statement of the ubiquity of this non-dual knowledge: yasmin vijnate sarvam idam vijnatam (that knowing which all this/here may be known). Knowledge of Brahman through identity of consciousness is the knowledge of the One Reality without a second – that which knows all things as forms of itself. Thus acquisition of the double knowledge, para vidya, knowledge of the Brahman and apara vidya, knowledge of the world and its objects becomes a project reducible to a primary knowledge by identity of consciousness of Brahman and a secondary knowledge by extension of consciousness to the infinite forms or formulations of Brahman. This could also be called the primary root of integrality in Sri Aurobindo’s theory of Integral Education – identification in consciousness with the One Reality which knows itself and all things reductively as itself (adwaita) and non-reductively as forms of itself extended for relational enjoyment (dwaita). The simultaneity of these forms of knowledge as a mode of non-dual knowledge belongs to a Brahman-consciousness Sri Aurobindo would call the Supermind and equate with the plane of consciousness called vijnana in the Upanishads.
But though we may say this is the Vedantic basis or support for Sri Aurobindo’s statement that “nothing can be taught,” his explanation does not explicitly reference this basis. Instead, his language indicates a process of inner contact – something within which “awakens” and “rises to the surface.” Such a process of transformation in the basis of knowing, implies a developed applied psychology, with its specialized vocabulary of the forms and instruments of knowledge and their relative qualities and valuation. Sri Aurobindo would later develop this theory of praxis, drawing on the terminology of different schools of Indian psychology and adding his own observations in the formulation of a phenomenology of transcendence. The elaboration of this theory is beyond the scope of this paper but for an approach to Integral Education, it may suffice to draw from this that its primary goal is a change in the form and source of knowledge and the method and instruments of its acquisition. Put simply, it implies a transition from the knowledge acquired by reasoning on the evidence of the senses and built piecemeal as an edifice of specialized interlocking systems (knowledge by indirect contact) to a non-dual and integral direct knowledge which is at once temporal and ahistorical (knowledge by identity) – through a process of transformation mediated by a stabilization of forms of intuitive knowledge (knowledge by inner contact). What are these forms of intuitive knowledge and how can they be fostered? We can see a more complete development of this question in the educational teachings of the Mother, in her practical formulation for the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education (SAICE).
Immanent Roots of Integrality
Sri Aurobindo’s second principle of education addresses the internal or immanent roots of integrality. It says: “The second principle is that the mind has to be consulted in its growth.” On the face of it, this looks like an obvious precept, which modern views of idealistic education and developmental psychology consider to be self-evident. But his description points to Vedantic roots once more. In his elaboration here: “To force the nature to abandon its own dharma is to do it permanent harm, mutilate its growth and deface its perfection. It is a selfish tyranny over a human soul and a wound to the nation…” The use of the term dharma relates to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, as Sri Aurobindo knew and developed it both in his implication for the individual (swadharma) and the nation. Dharma is an ubiquitous term in the Gita, and in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation, has to do less with duty and moral righteousness than with the dynamic principle of cosmic unity as it unfolds in every individualized consciousness. It is thus closely related to the notion of soul (as he states explicitly in the description) both of the individual and the nation. Once again, we see both the psychological and nationalist bases of Sri Aurobindo’s educational text and once again, this nationalism must be understood as an alternate cultural psychology presenting a transformative postcolonial and postmodern critique of colonialism and modernity. The consultation of the mind itself here implies an art of mentoring, where the various levels and forms of human consciousness are penetrated through dialogic engagement in an attempt to arrive at the irreducible kernel of personality, the true person within. The process of “consulting the mind” itself is thus not a static but a dynamic and transformative process, conducted through a desireless warmth and compassion in the teacher attempting to aid the inner integration and expression of the student’s drives for knowledge and experience through an insight of personal quintessence and proportional representation. Here, again, the forms of inner knowledge related to the soul come into question as in the previous principle.
In Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s teaching, the soul or psychic being is the core of the human person, persisting from life to life and carrying in itself the law of personal expression. It is wrapped in the subtle forms of mental, vital and physical consciousness and expresses through these modalities in the human life. Each of these other sheaths of consciousness are independent and discontinuous in human beings, representing the evolutionary breaks in earthly consciousness – life appearing as a new principle with independent properties in matter and mind appearing as a further unprecedented principle in life. Each of these have their independent lives within us, with their own interests, preferences, priorities and forms of understanding. It is the soul or psychic being within which can integrate this inner psychology and utilize their specificities proportionately for the evolution of consciousness in the person. The psychic being is the evolving entity within the human, and the educational enterprise, from one angle, can be seen as the facilitation of the growth and expression of the psychic being in itself and through the instruments of mind, life and body. The “consultation of the mind” thus aids in the development of a customized curriculum for the student, enabling the emergence of the soul and giving the proper proportionate emphases to the soul-qualities as expressed in the aspirations of the physical, vital (pertaining to emotion and will) and mental beings. It would also address the soul’s aspiration for universality experienced in a variety of specific ways as its doors of realization of spiritual consciousness.
Social and Cultural Foundations
But, as one can see in the nationalistic sensitivity of the statement, this principle addresses not only an ideal of psychological development based on a human soul essence but envisages a group or national soul as well. Today, following the excesses of nationalism in a post-World War II era, ideas such as that of nation soul are likely to look more suspicious than they would have in an era of anti-colonial resistance. Nevertheless, Sri Aurobindo’s idea of the nation soul needs to be understood not as a chauvinistic or ahistorical essence but more properly as a cultural palimpsest, an accumulated subjectivity forming the intimate discursive basis of a living culture and seeded with its invisible preferential forms and questions of communication, expression and growth. The seemingly psychological bias of Integral Education here reveals its social and cultural foundations. To engage with the world from a culturally situated perspective is to preserve the living marks of cultural history, not necessarily as unchanged forms, but as creatively adapting choices.
Sri Aurobindo’s third principle of education continues to address this socially constituted subject of education. It is also and perhaps more primarily, a statement of spiritual pragmatism. The principle states: “The third principle of education is to work from the near to the far, from that which is to that which shall be.” The description addresses more explicitly the place of local and cultural traditions as educational groundings, skills and ideals with which to move towards universality. Just as the psychological transcendence of habitus is implied and indicated in the first and part of the second principles, the importance of cultural embeddedness is brought to the fore here. Our physical and a good part of our vital existence is formed through unconscious intangible assimilations of culture and habitus and the refinement and upliftment of these parts through exposure to ideals present within them is among the foundations of this aspect of education. However, the ability to have a part of the being which is not subject to parochialism and can creatively engage with wider cultural forms and ideals of a more universal kind is also part of this third principle, which acknowledges a progressive role in education. The vantage of a transcendent consciousness brought into engagement with a firmly acculturated tradition so as to subject it to transformative forces in keeping with the needs of historical advance, without compromising the highest ideals present in it, is the offering of this principle.
Since the epistemology of Integral Education, in its holistic view of the human person and personality, addresses what it sees as distinct modalities of knowledge, in its curriculum, training and assessment, it would be fruitful to consider briefly the Vedantic and consciousness bases of these knowledge modalities. If, following Vedanta, Knowledge (Jnana) is the self-consciousness of infinite Conscious Being, in its active emergence into a manifest form of an interacting and evolving multiplicity, self-contained as space and ever-developing as time, stages and forms in the operation of this self-consciousness may be formulated. This is done in the Aitareya Upanishad, where the foundational and inexpressible knowledge as identity, Jnana, is expressed in the forms or stages of Vijnana, Prajnana, Samjnana and Aajnana. In Sri Aurobindo’s interpretations of these terms, Vijnana refers to the self-consciousness of the One – a comprehensive knowledge; Prajnana refers to the knowledge of its parts in themselves and in their relations – an apprehensive knowledge; Samjnana refers to a knowledge of the essence of the One in its parts – a contactual knowledge; and Aajnana refers to a knowledge of control and unfoldment of the parts by the One – a practical knowledge. Thus Vijnana can be thought of as the identification with Brahman in consciousness (yoga); Prajnana as the perception of Brahman in all things (darshana), Samjnana as the sense-experience of the Brahman (essence) in all things (ananda, bhava); and Aajnana as the will, instrumental knowledge, creative skill or technology of unfoldment of Brahman in all things (tapas, kaushalah). This succession of knowledge modalities can also be seen as emergent and expressive grades in a manifestation of the inexpressible knowledge by identity – vijnana and prajnana as more properly the knowledge by the One of itself and of the Many; and samjnana and aajnana as more properly the knowledge by the Many of the One in itself and in the Many. According to Sri Aurobindo, these forms of knowledge co-exist in Supermind, the conceptive and creative faculty of Brahman for manifestation, and in all of them the knowledge of the Oneness of Brahman is primordially present, either as singular or as foreground or as background. This is the nature of Knowledge in the modality of manifestation known as the Knowledge (Vidya).
In the modality of manifestation in which we find ourselves, also known as the Ignorance (Avidya), these same forms and grades of knowledge are operational, but with the two differences: (1) they operate not in conjunction and unison but separately or independently; and (2) the knowledge of Oneness of Brahman is everywhere absent or suppressed and knowledge in all these four forms is that of the Many by the Many. A little reflection will bring home the correspondences of these forms of knowledge in the human experience in the Ignorance. Firstly, Vijnana as the knowledge of identification with Brahman is absent. Next, Prajnana can be seen as external knowledge by observation and measurement (perception). Then, Samjnana can be understood as affective knowledge arising out of sense contact, or the knowledge of others attained through the experiences and apparatus of senses, sensations, feelings, moods, sentiments, emotions and affections, marked by the dualities of pleasure and pain, attraction and replusion. Finally, Aajnana can be seen as practical or technical knowledge, inclusive of the knowledge of will and skill. The identification of these forms of knowledge in the human being with the instrumental sheaths of mind (manah), life (pranah) and body (sharira) respectively can also be seen. Mental or cognitive knowledge would relate to prajnana; affective vital experience would relate to samjnana; and a knowledge operating in the physical domain, as skill in the body, will in the vital, and technical understanding of process and practice in the mind would relate to aajnana. As we have touched on earlier, Sri Aurobindo points out that the evolutionary discontinuities in the appearance of each of these modalities of consciousness on earth renders these forms of knowledge and experience distinct and independent in the human being. They are subject in their operation to the exclusivity of aims of their corresponding beings, the mental, vital and physical and suffer therefore from disunity of intent and interference or immixture of understanding. The ultimate correction of these errors of knowledge in the Ignorance is only to be found by a discovery of and identification with the sources of these forms of knowledge in the Knowledge – ie. a dwelling in Supermind and conversion of the sheaths and instruments of knowledge to their supramental counterparts. But this distant goal has to be approached through a gradual process of preparation by the third precept of Sri Aurobindo’s principles of teaching – i.e. moving from the near to the far. This would imply an attention to developing the factors lacking in these operational forms of knowledge – i.e. attempting to activate the root of knowledge by identity within these forms of separative knowledge; and attempting to discover a root of integrality which would harmonize the activities of these different modalities under a single intent and coordinated action. In Sri Aurobindo’s phenomenology, this root of integrality within us is the psychic being. In its emergence and occupation of a leading role in the human personality and life, a harmonious development of the different forms of knowledge, each in its dynamic and proportional development in the individual, becomes possible. But even prior to this emergence, each of the independent beings in us, the mental, vital and physical, can receive its intimations from within in the form of intuitions of the inner or subliminal mental, vital or physical beings. A receptivity to and development of these intuitions of identity in the forms of psychic or spiritual knowledge then, would form the direction of training of the different instruments of human knowledge. This would form the development of the intermediate form of knowledge, knowledge by inner contact.
At the mental level – of prajnana, an openness to intuition to bring direct intimations of conclusions otherwise deduced from the evidence of the senses, could then form part of this training. In Science, it is known as a practical fact that hypothesis formation (and often leaps in deductive processes) is often arrived at by inexplicable and intuitive means. Similarly, in metaphysical thinking, large schema are often “seen” all at once in the minds of the philosophers who have made important contributions to our views of reality – and often worked out in their details afterwards. To be made aware of such processes and encouraged to apply them to cognitive thought would be an underlying approach to the method of mental education. Similarly, a vital education, would take up the life of the senses through the sublimation of the aesthetic sense and its development in the inner perception of forms of beauty and affective delight connecting us in all things to the self-existent and causeless Delight (ananda) of Brahman. In all contacts, the intuitional experience and articulation of degrees and varieties of the One Being of Love in the universe, veiled or unveiled, would be encouraged. In terms of will, an intuition of power in its works of production and organization in the world – not the animal instinct of personal survival and possession, but the intuition of the enhancement of unity and consciousness through works, would be the direction of the growth of this form of knowledge; and in terms of the body, an openness to physical intuition in its harmonious and healthy maintenance and instrumentality and in its instinctual skill in action, would form important elements of the progress of the physical being.
Integral Education and Mainstream Higher Education
In mainstream higher education, it is cognitive knowledge that is mainly addressed. In professional forms of higher education, such as engineering or business administration, we find some degree of practical knowledge, mostly oriented towards theoretical consideration, though contemporary business management schools have increasingly addressed other modalities of knowledge. In idealistic education and in postmodern critiques of contemporary civilization, this lopsided equation of education and even consciousness with rationality has been brought to the front. For example, thinkers such as Michel Foucault have called for an acknowledgement of different forms of rationality. Contemporary workshops (mostly extra-curricular and professional) to enhance the health of different forms of knowing and an openness to intuition have been in the ascendant. A pluralist approach to knowledge, evidenced in the currency of such terms as multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence or social intelligence is growing in importance, though hardly yet mainstream in academia. On the other hand, contemporary globalism is best understood as a late-Enlightenment phenomenon in which a kind of omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience has been achieved for humanity in general but at the cost of individual insignificance through the cascading torrent of technological progress. This has made for a civilizational crisis erupting from every direction – ecological, cultural and financial. In this volatile environment, fraught with danger, Sri Auorbindo’s revisionary approach to knowledge, its instruments, sources and forms of acquisition and establishment merit consideration, for the coherence and integrality of its vision and realization.
II - Integral Education: Its Original Implementation
In terms of the implementation of Integral Education, the original form was laid by the Mother and the founding teachers of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in the ashram at Pondicherry, India. The higher educational wing of this ashram, known as Knowledge, has attempted to give form to these ideas in terms of higher education. The salient features of these forms include a customized curriculum closely co-created through the interaction of the student with a mentor, attention paid to the physical, vital, mental, psychic and spiritual forms of consciousness and their growth and expression, and a facility for languages – both indigenous and international: most students know Sanskrit and at least one other Indian language plus English and French. The social location of this experiment in an ashram composed of residents practicing the Integral Yoga makes many features of the Integral Education practically effective. The teachers are familiar with the epistemology and terminology of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching as lived and experienced or at least intimately intuited realities and as aspects of their life practice, and translate these realities into education as part of a seamless habitus. Such a close community could run the danger of unconscious religious cultism in its pedagogy, and in spite of the Mother’s insistence on freedom of choice for the students, the conventionalized forms of address and practice relating to Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and the Integral Yoga, seem indeed to have subsumed the educational habitus. Moreover, the mentorship practice has not gone deep or far enough either in pushing the boundaries of the faculties of knowledge or of an integrally expressive engagement in the curriculum or of a penetrating and informed assimilation and questioning of tradition and its engagement with aspects of contemporary global culture or civilizational values and lifestyles.
Continuous Learning Habitus
Students entering this higher educational stage do so as part of an integrated program which begins at childhood, so that the principles of Integral Education have to be seen as a continuous application through school and in college. Thus, the development of the faculties of the mind, of concentration and reasoning and synthesizing ability, of the development of the imagination and the openness to inspiration and finally, of the replacement of the mental activity by intuitive sources of knowledge, are meant to be introduced at the school level. However, they could in general be given more importance or made an independent part of the education, since the critical transformation in the definition of knowledge in Sri Aurobindo’s teaching rests on this training. At the higher educational level, training of the mental faculties is assumed to have been achieved and generally not exercised in any principled manner. Though Sri Aurobindo, in his writings, outlines some methods of meditation and the Mother provides some guidelines on the ways in which the mental faculties may be developed, these have been left as general as possible, so that the inner process of learning in each student be given its full creative possibility as knowledge from within. But this then makes the mentorship process all the more critical and it is doubtful whether the isolated teaching community has risen to the occasion.
Given that all the teachers are practitioners of the Integral Yoga, the convergence of that practice with the mentorship process provides a greater likelihood of success in this area. The “free progress system” devised by the Mother is the structure through which students arrive at their curriculum for study in consultation with a mentor. This process is initiated from the high school level and continues in higher education. “Classes” are usually conducted in an informal setting with the teacher surrounded by a small group of students interacting through an intimate dialogical participation. Evaluation of success in course completion is usually measured through student-chosen research projects. No degrees or certificates are provided at course or program completion, and a student is allowed to take his or her time to progress through the curriculum chosen.
Integrality of the Curriculum
The question of the comprehensiveness or integrality of the curriculum needs next to be considered. Is the Integral Education being practiced at the Sri Auorbindo Ashram meeting in higher education its own set criteria for the development of the five areas of human consciousness – mental, vital, physical, psychic and spiritual? Are these being chosen for each student in keeping with the needs of the growth of the soul through these modalities? And is the curriculum sufficiently cognizant of the engagement of the individual with tradition on the one hand, and the concerns of a global modernity on the other? Again, the education of the five areas of consciousness begins from high school. In terms of content, mental education encompasses the areas of science, mathematics, philosophy and other cognitive disciplines. Vital education, in terms of skill and faculty development, concerns itself with the training of the senses, sensations, feelings and aesthetic judgments on the one hand and the development of character, will and practical effectiveness in work and organization on the other. In terms of content, this encompasses the areas of the creative arts – literature, art, music and theater and of history, biography, ethics, social and political theory and administration/management. All these fields of study are potentially represented in the ashram education at both elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, but as mentioned before, their place in a student’s curriculum and specific implementation is left to the mentor and the student. Here the role of the mentor cannot be over-emphasized. Unfortunately, the ideal of “free progress” has become largely interpreted as a laissez-faire attitude towards students’ choices, which, without proper exposure and inspiration, tends to be determined by environmental conditionings. The extended community of the ashram could also be said to represent expertise in all these areas, but such expertise is hardly well utilized. At the practical and expressive level, the community life at the ashram provides ample opportunity for the expression and display of creativity and work/administrative skills through theater, art exhibitions, publications and collective work projects. Particularly in the arts and in physical culture, this has yielded an aspect of cultural interest, but this tends to exist in isolation without a sufficiently creative and critical acknowledgement of contemporary world culture.
Physical education, which is hardly addressed in traditional higher education, except as an extra-curricular activity, is among the exemplary contributions of Integral Education at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In one of his last writings, Sri Aurobindo draws out the importance of physical culture in an integral education. In the far reaches of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga philosophy, the physical body is meant to be made fully conscious and awakened to its identity as a material form of divine consciousness, translating its eternity to immortality. Physical education as part of an integral education is a preparation of the physical consciousness, enhancing its inner capacities for health, longevity, coordination, harmony, endurance, stamina, capacity for intensity of experience (dharana samarthyam) and the direct intuitive skill of a working physical instrument. Physical culture at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, in the form of a choice of exercises, group activities and sports is mandatory at all levels of education and is voluntarily continued by a large proportion of ashram residents well into advanced age. What is encouraged through the physical exercises is the recognition and cultivation of an independent consciousness of the body, a cultivation through awareness more than through an insistence on any particular form or tradition of physical culture. So, for example, though Indian hatha yoga has been known to have developed an approach to physical culture which enhances the limits of physical capacity in every way, this is not the only or even “suggested” form of physical culture at the ashram. People take their choice of calisthenics, long distance running and other individual activities along with coordinated group activities of a variety of forms.
The two other forms of education, special to the Integral Education at the ashram are Psychic Education and Spiritual Education. These are the forms meant specially to bring the individual directly into contact with an aspect of Vijnana (knowledge by identity), either as an immanent (psychic) or a transcendental and cosmic source (spirit). At the higher educational level, these forms are addressed mainly through a study of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s works on these forms of consciousness and comparative study, and contemplation of these teachings applied to one’s own life and experience. Again, a more systematic attention to addressing an understanding and experience of these forms of knowledge/consciousness can be facilitated than what is offered presently at the ashram. Sri Auorbindo’s works of darshanic phenomenology (The Life Divine) or of applied integral psychology (The Synthesis of Yoga) are introduced as texts, but seldom with a specialized consideration or application of the bases of a Vedantic epistemology or of the instruments of knowledge and their transformation. Moreover, at the higher educational level, cross-traditional and cross-epochal researches into spiritual experience and trans-egoic methods with a view to internal understanding and assimilation can be fruitfully facilitated.
Apart from these psychological bases of Integral Education, the question of curriculum must answer to what degree the content of the education addresses cultural knowledge of habitus and tradition and global forms of contemporary culture as forms of assimilation and critical engagement. As mentioned before, one powerful tool in this direction is the expanded language awareness within the ashram curriculum. For the most part, Science subjects are taught in French, while the Humanities are taught in English. This makes for a cultural expansion through two of the major languages of modern Europe and with it, an enhanced appreciation of the different gifts of perception and expression held by these cultures. Along with this, most students learn Sanskrit, and through it, are exposed to the roots of ancient and medieval Indian culture. Finally, they are also encouraged to study formally their mother tongue or some other modern language of their liking. This helps both in an informed acceptance and appreciation of the ideals in one’s culture and in a universalization of one’s local cultural roots, bringing many of the unconscious assumptions of social behavior into awareness as choices. However, again, in this area, I feel the curriculum stays largely insulated from the problems of contemporary Indian or global culture. Though Sri Aurobindo’s profound works on social and political theory, The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity are taken up for study, the contemporary rethinking of civilization launched by postmodern and postcolonial thinkers is hardly brought into alignment or engagement with Sri Aurobindo’s vision and critical thinking, leaving it static and ahistorical in its reception and interpretation. The same can be said about the introduction to Indian culture and history, where a nationalistic idealism traces its continuity with early 20th c. approaches but ignores more contemporary cross-cultural or subaltern studies or critical historiographies opening vistas on the future.
Gurukula and the Role of the Teacher
In its implementation, as mentioned earlier, this model of education is highly dependent on a mentorship process. Of course, higher education in the modern academy also recognizes the need for customized mentorship, with its research guide and committee at the thesis or dissertation stage. But with Integral Education at the ashram, mentorship and personal awareness are the bases of the pedagogy, and determine the students’ curriculum planning and scheduling, assessment and determination of progress. In a way, this is a translation into a quasi-modern academic form of the pre-modern Indian gurukula, where the student stayed in the home of the teacher and was guided and taught through all aspects of daily living. The principle of pedagogy being primarily one of the integral development and expression of faculties and thus methodological, this closeness of relation with someone who has practiced and experienced the psychological bases of integral education, is indispensable. As mentioned above, at the ashram, this is possible, because it provides a habitus of residential practice, where the education merges seamlessly into individual and collective life. The relationship between student and mentor or student and teacher in the small groups which study together, is however, different from that of the unconditional obedience and surrender on the part of the student and the unquestioned privilege on the part of the guru demanded in the pre-modern gurukula. Student and teacher are related here more as a fraternity of co-travelers, sharing knowledge and experience in a process of mutual growth. The high teacher to student ratio is also made possible by the economics of the ashram, where teachers whose living needs are taken care of by the community, offer their educational services free of cost. Thus, a translation of this model to settings other than that of a residential community committed exclusively to a change of consciousness and seeing education as part of the means to this end, poses serious difficulties which only implementation can measure in terms of success or failure. Again, though the factors mentioned above make the ashram habitus ideal for the social practice of Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s Integral Education, the insular and insulated nature of such a setting tends to distance the faculty from contemporary currents in thinking, having an effect of making the courses anachronistic and ahistorical, thus diluting the potential for students emerging from such a system to become creative agents for civilizational change in the contemporary world. An informed critique of modernity and its discontents, of neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism, technology and culture, globalization or post-national capitalism, patriarchies, superpower politics and ecological imbalance in the light of the revolutionary vision and teaching of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the power to offer and shape solutions to the critical evolutionary crisis of our times is not much in evidence among the alumni of this institute.
III – Some Contemporary Attempts and Approximations
The California Institute of Integral Studies and Integral Theory
Outside of Pondicherry, numerous schools throughout India and some abroad today claim to follow the principles of Integral Education, attempting to replicate the principles and forms found in the school at the Sri Aurobindo ashram. However, implementation of Integral Education at the higher educational level is not easy to come across. An example worth considering by dint of its founder’s inspiration in the teaching of Sri Aurobindo and its explicit reference to integralism in its title, is the California Institute of Integral Studies at San Francisco (http://ciis.edu). Founded in 1968, this institute was shaped under the leadership of Haridas Chaudhuri, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, and succeeded the American Academy of Asian Studies, co-founded by Chaudhuri in 1951. The Institute (CIIS) fields undergraduate and graduate programs under its two main schools of Professional Psychology and of Consciousness and Transformation. In its institutional description of the term “integral education” as implied in its title as a methodological focus, it mixes a large variety of definitions: (1) “a need to synthesize the fragmentary aspects of contemporary thought and culture into a meaningful whole;” (2) “a creative synthesis of the highest values of East and West;” (3) “encompass[ing] all aspects of learning: the intellectual, the experiential, and the applied;” (4) “integrat[ing] knowledge beyond the confines of traditional academic disciplines” – viz. “cultural diversity, multiple ways of knowing, spirituality, a sense of community, emancipatory ideals, and ecological sustainability;” (5) “connect[ing] the spiritual and practical dimensions of intellectual life;” (6) “integrat[ing] the wisdom traditions.” While some of these definitions may be more properly called creative or synthetic, some spiritually universalist and others cross-cultural, a loose mapping of this locus to Sri Aurobindo’s foundations of integral education may be sensed. But no direct reference to an integral consciousness or knowledge and its forms, modalities and processes, as elucidated by Sri Aurobindo, whether psychological or social, is to be found here. The pedagogical bases of the institute are also largely mainstream, as in most institutes of higher learning. There is no demand on the faculty members to practice any alternate form of consciousness or knowledge acquisition or transformation or teach or foster any such methods or realizations. The model of the individual as an evolving soul with its nature sheaths and instruments is not explicitly affirmed, though a relative acceptance of a variety of psychological models including the Aurobindonian are to be found in some of its courses and programs. The cosmic extrapolation of this evolutionary perspective at the ecological and social level is also not directly assumed, though again a variety of evolutionary perspectives are not absent. All in all, the California Institute of Integral Studies may be seen as an interesting experiment providing an intermediate possibility of integralism located somewhere between contemporary social ethics, mind-body therapeutics and cultural/spiritual universalism. The possibility of the understanding, contemplation and practice of an Integral Philosophy and Psychology or a consciousness based theory of social and cultural critique and unity as taught by Sri Aurobindo is not absent in this mix, though rendered dilute and compromised by mixture with other relativist paradigms. Though interesting in its eclecticism and experimental creativity, a critique of this approach from the viewpoint of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, would be that an integral consciousness and knowledge cannot be synthesized from relative and speculative perspectives with their roots in the Ignorance (avidya). An experiential foundation in an integral consciousness, as claimed by Sri Aurobindo and backgrounded by a history of Vedantic practice, can alone be the vantage (as in the image of the cosmic aswattha tree from the Gita with its roots above and branches below) from which partial approaches can be put in place. To overcome this limitation, of course, is to challenge the very foundations of epistemology in the western academy, which is intrinsically relativist and lacks the history of social practice to accept an independent basis in Integral Knowledge. Postmodern critiques of modern pedagogy have made it possible to open up alternate epistemologies, including those based on phenomenologies of spiritual experience (darshan), what Michel Foucault has called ‘an insurrection of subjugated knowledges.’ From a certain viewpoint, instead of a rationally limited relativism, this implies a hyper-relativism, but one which allows for a staging and testing of various non-rational bases and claims for truth. The institutional bastions of educational standardization (e.g. accrediting agencies) are not likely to look kindly on theories and approaches which lack verifiability by reason, so within this disciplinary topography, the California Institute of Integral Studies may be seen as an institution of higher education which has certainly been active in pushing the boundaries of the modern academy in the direction of an Integral Education within permissible bounds. However, an important distinction and danger here should not be overlooked. Integral Education, as taught by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is envisaged as an aspect of culture serving a vision of consciousness change in the individual and society. As such, its method and content is meant to prepare for and subserve such a change of consciousness. In this, it follows a Vedantic cultural epistemology, where theory (darshana) cannot be separated from practice (yoga), and the former takes a supporting and clarifying role for the latter, which is considered primary. At the CIIS (and elsewhere in the modern academy, such as in the work of Ken Wilber), following an Aristotelian primacy of logocentrism, metaphysical edifices of “Integral Theory” with orthodox social potentialities are in the making. Such “theoretical” dogmas, of course, are not absent among the followers of Sri Aurobindo, but there this must be seen as aberrations of the intent of Integral Philosophy, which is best understood not as metaphysics but as a (supra-)rationally mediated phenomenology (darshan), companioning an Integral Yoga, not as a statement of social fundamentalism but as an orientation and instrument of discrimination and intuitive awakening in individual practice. If this includes a social dimension, it is clear that such a society must emerge intentionally through a collective accumulation of experience arising out of engagement with these texts and thus validating their “truth”, “universality” and ”freedom.”
Civilizational Imperative of Integral Education
To wrap up this discussion on contemporary implementations of Integral Education, I would like to touch on a higher educational endeavor which is in its formative stages as a further model for the future. This is also inspired by the educational philosophy and pedagogical intent and methods of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and differs from the examples dealt with earlier, in being a distance learning school. Though this may make certain aspects of Integral Education, eg, the physical and the social/collective dimension harder to realize, it offers a greater reach and through a combination of onsite and online activities, facilitates in my belief, a more introspective and creative engagement with the educational contents. The term “integral” here is understood as (a) an integration of the personality; (b) an integration of modalities of knowledge; and (c) an integration of cultures. The core offering in the initial phase will be a graduate program in Integral Culture, where students will choose a mix of courses representing cognitive, creative, ethical, administrative and hands-on (practicum) courses taken from the disciplines of Indian, postmodern and integral philosophy and psychology, consciousness approaches to the creative arts, eco-communities and civilization studies. The majority of the teachers (facilitators) will be selected from practitioners of the Integral Yoga so that they may be able to share their experience of inner growth with the students and guide their inner and outer educational progress. The specific curriculum for a student will be arrived at through a process of mentorship and interaction between the student and a faculty member s/he develops a bond with and will take into account the student’s inner needs in terms of mental, vital, physical, psychic and spiritual growth. Courses on the yoga philosophy and psychology of Sri Aurobindo will include studies of the instruments and stages of knowledge and processes of transformation as well as of forms of consciousness and their progress. These understandings will be brought into a comparative frame with traditional spiritual paradigms as well as contemporary approaches to epistemology and transpersonal culture. An orientation towards future society and civilizational ideals and values will be fostered through holistic studies in history, eco-communities, organizational development and through the acquisition of postmodern tools of analysis and critique. The program implementation will be largely through the use of an online classroom management system, allowing rapid interaction between students and facilitators and including teleconferencing. Assignments will be geared to an introspective assimilation of and identification with the ideas introduced by seeding course materials with reflective questions pertaining to one’s inner engagement with the material covered. This approach is modeled after the Vedantic learning progression of shravana (audition/reception), manana (reflection/contemplation) and nidhidhyasana (meditation/identification in consciousness) mediated by the facilitator/mentor. It is hoped that the accumulation of practice and expression arising from such processes of engagement will constitute a field and an archive of experience continuously deepening the inner contributions of education, both in terms of the sources and instruments of knowledge and in the power of individual and social transformation.
Conclusion: Integral Education and a Postsecular Social Consciousness
In conclusion, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s principles and implementations of Integral Education belong to a postsecular social consciousness which embraces a universal spirituality based on an integral model of reality and personality and an openness to a transformation in the source and instrumentation of human knowledge. It also envisages a transformed society with new ideals and goals leading towards an optimistic and holistic vision of the future based in experiences of relational and cosmic identity. This is fundamentally an optimistic vision, and in a time of global crisis, sectarian fundamentalism, techno-capitalistic conditioning and spiritual bankruptcy, an epic hopefulness in the human capacity to rise to its full potential of the stewardship of the earth and the ushering of an era of peace and harmony based in consciousness and creativity.