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(Madan L.Goel is Professor of Political Science in Florida. He lectures and writes on topics related to India, Hinduism and international conflict.)
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In March 2008, Oprah Winfrey, the queen of American TV talk shows, interviewed spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle over a ten week period. The web cast is said to have been viewed from 9 to 11 people worldwide and created quite a stir. Tolle is the author of two popular books: The Power of Now (1997), and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life"s Purpose (2005). Tolle states that "a profound transformation is taking place in the collective consciousness of the planet earth and beyond."
Tolle correctly summarizes Sri Aurobindo"s viewpoint in this matter. Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively about evolution of consciousness that will gradually take hold of mankind. Even though Sri Aurobindo wrote in the first part of the 20th century, his writings have a modern and contemporary relevance for the 21st century. Sri Aurobindo stated that: "Consciousness first appears in what seems to be inconscient (sub consciousness). Life in the animal and plant is the first step of this release of consciousness; mind is the second; but the evolution does not finish with mind, it awaits a release into something greater, a consciousness which is spiritual and supramental. The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of higher or Supermind as the dominant power in man. After the higher Consciousness is released in man, life on earth becomes perfect."
I describe briefly Sri Aurobindo"s many contributions, his spiritual teachings and a discussion of his philosophy of progressive evolution. His "five dreams" described in the concluding section have a modern urgency. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) is a major world figure of the first half of the 20th C. He contributed in many fields.
. He was a prolific writer. His works fill thirty-five volumes. He was steeped in Western scholarship. He commented on the works of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and Racine, among others. He also wrote commentaries on the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. His Essays on the Gita are unequalled in scope and insight.
. He was a poet. He wrote many sonnets and composed Savitri, about the longest spiritual poem in the English language.
. He was a philosopher. His philosophy of progressive evolution described in his magnum opus The Life Divine is sometimes part of college courses.
. Most important, he was a yogi and a mystic. He could heal himself through yogic power. He is also said to have been able to influence world events.
. Many of his psychological insights into human nature are woven into the works of American psychologists like Ken Wilbur.
. In India, he is best known as a revolutionary and a freedom-fighter. Ten years before Gandhi, there was Sri Aurobindo. He advocated full independence for India in 1906-08 writings and speeches when the Congress elite wanted accommodation with the British.
. He founded in 1926 the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. The Ashram now draws thousands of seekers from around the globe. Mira Alfassa, a French spiritual figure, now known as the Mother, collaborated with Sri Aurobindo in the venture.
. He worked to transform the world spiritually. Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The important thing is to change it. Sri Aurobindo is a major change-agent.
. Dozens of schools in India are based on Sri Aurobindo"s educational philosophy, as well as one in the State of California.
Sri Aurobindo wielded great spiritual force. He labored to bring down from above a New Consciousness that will take hold of the affairs of mankind. He foresaw the coming together of the peoples of the globe. He predicted that Indian spirituality will enter the West in ever larger measure. Sri Aurobindo"s foresight was not based on intellectual analysis but on mystical insight. His vision has modern relevance.
Sri Aurobindo was born on 15 August 1872 in Bengal to Hindu parents. At the tender age of seven, he was taken by his Anglophile father to England to be educated and placed in the care of an Anglican clergyman. Sri Aurobindo was first tutored at home, then at St Paul"s School in London and then at Cambridge University. He was a brilliant student of the Classics and won numerous prizes in Latin and Greek. He wrote poetry at a young age.
When he returned to India in 1893 at age 21, he was ignorant about Indian culture and language. For the next 12 years, Sri Aurobindo taught English and French literature at Baroda College and also served as the personal secretary to the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda. During this period, he taught himself Sanskrit and Indian languages. He translated portions of the Mahabharata, India"s great epic poem from Sanskrit into English. Sri Aurobindo represents a unique integration of the scholarship of the East and the West.
Sri Aurobindo joined the nationalist anti-British fervor beginning in India at the turn of the century. He was influenced by the writings of nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, and Tilak. He led the radical wing of the nationalist movement and wrote for Bande Matram.
The British did not take kindly to his writings and speeches. In 1908, they jailed him for a year in solitary confinement on charges of sedition, i.e. treason. In solitary confinement at the Alipore jail, Sri Aurobindo practiced deep meditation and yoga. He studied the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. His spiritual practices led to a personal transformation. For a while, he was going mad with his mind in over drive. But, by focusing within, he realized that there was a stable and peaceful witness consciousness behind the turbulent mind. The mind was agitated but the deeper part of him was at rest. He also witnessed that Lord Krishna was the secret author of all that happened around him, including the actions of his jailors. As to his solitary confinement, he remarked that "the British meant it bad, but God made it good."
Henceforth, his life was radically changed. He gave up political activity. He moved to Pondicherry in Southern India, then under French rule and beyond the arm of the British police. He secluded himself for years and did intense yogic concentration. An Ashram grew up around him in 1926, which now draws devotees from around the globe. The Mother, a French lady and a spiritual giant in her own right, collaborated with Sri Aurobindo in this venture.
It was not Sri Aurobindo"s aim to found a new religion or to seek followers. Yet, his philosophical ideas and spiritual force led to the founding of a movement to bring about human transformation. Several Sri Aurobindo Centers exist in the United States including one in Pensacola, Florida. For space reasons, I describe briefly only a few of the teachings.
The teaching of Sri Aurobindo starts from that of the ancient sages of India.
Behind the appearances of the universe there is the Reality of a Being and Consciousness, a Self of all things, one and eternal. All beings are united in that One Self and Spirit but divided by the illusion of separation.
Like the ancient Rishis (seers) of India, Sri Aurobindo taught that the One Reality and Consciousness is beyond number, gender and definitions. This reality is seen in the cave of one"s heart, and it is described it as Sat, Chit, Ananda. The discovery of your own inner being, then, is an authentic path to enlightenment.
Sat (Absolute Being): The One Reality is beyond all time and space as a supreme transcendence. What it manifests, whether the macrocosm or the microcosm, is necessarily within its own being, much as an object floats in ethereal space. Sat is absolute, primal existence. The One Reality is self existent without a cause. It just is.
Chit (Awareness or Consciousness): The One Reality is fully Conscious Power. It is not inert or dead matter. It possesses all knowledge about the past, present and future. It is the source of all knowledge. It is the eye of the eye and the ear of the ear. The One Consciousness is not a passive reality. It is accompanied with Power. It is Chit-Shakti.
Ananda (Bliss): The One Reality lacks nothing; it contains all and encompasses everything. As it lacks nothing and possesses all, its nature is one of delight. The state of bliss is an integral part of the One.
God is complete in Himself/Herself. He/she lacks nothing. God is not compelled to create. God creates for joy. Creation is an act of Ananda, joy or bliss. God fulfills himself in his creation, just as an artist fulfills himself in his creative work.
As God is all, contains all, the creation is more accurately described as a manifestation. God becomes the creation. The creation is His Lila, a play. But we should not conclude that it is whimsical. There is a purpose in the cosmos which is both earnest and joyful.
God dwells in each article of his creation He is in us, and we are in Him. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that the universe is strung around his neck like pearls on a string.
By me is this entire universe pervaded. All things are in Me, and I in them.
Know that as the mighty wind blowing everywhere rests in the sky, all created beings rest in Me.
I am the Father, the Mother, the Supporter and the Grandsire of the universe.
(Bhagavad Gita, 9:4, 6, 17)
God is not diminished by his creation. He is full and complete before creation and full and complete after creation.
A fundamental teaching of Sri Aurobindo is one of Unity of all created things. Encompassing diversity, there is unity. Behind individual souls, there is the Self, one with the Divine.
Not only human life but all created life including animal life is a unity. We spring from one source. Differences and divisions are unreal. The belief that we originate from one common source and are all One with that source has ethical implications: it leads to a kinder and a gentler world.
Is Creation Accidental? Material scientists would have us believe that creation is an accident or the work of chance. The Gita teaches that creation is the work of a Mighty hand. It is not a machine that somehow got started without purpose or goal. Creation is not an illusion or Maya. It is not a dream. It carries in itself the Word of God. In the words of Sri Aurobindo in Savitri:
This world was not made with random bricks of chance
A blind god is not destiny"s architect,
A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,
There is meaning in each curve and line.
Jesus said a similar thing when he declared, "But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered." Luke 12:7
Sri Aurobindo puts forward the cardinal fact of a spiritual evolution as the meaning of existence. Existence is not a finished product. God did not create the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Existence is a Truth of things unfolding by a gradual process of evolution. "The Truth of Existence is its Becoming."
Evolution is not the evolution of matter but evolution of consciousness. Consciousness is the fundamental thing. Consciousness is the life force, the energy, the motion that creates everything in the universe, from the microcosm (the smallest) to the macrocosm (the largest). There is consciousness in matter, for example in the movement of electrons and protons within the atomic structure. The vegetable kingdom of trees and plants exhibits a certain degree of consciousness. Consciousness evolves into a higher level in the animal. The mind of man is the highest expression of consciousness at the present time. But evolution does not end with Mind. Within the human being, there is the "Higher Mind." In deep contemplation, Rishis (seers) reach the higher mind.
Consciousness is usually equated with the mind. But mental consciousness does not exhaust the complete range of consciousness, just as the eye cannot exhaust all the gradations of color or the ear all the gradations of sound. So there are ranges of consciousness below as well as above the human mind. Sri Aurobindo has laid out for us the entire ladder steps of higher consciousness: mind, higher mind, intuitive mind, overmind, and supermind.
Through the process of evolution, man will someday achieve a supramental consciousness. Supramental consciousness means beyond mental consciousness. Those who possess supramental consciousness will be a different breed, just as man is different from the animal. They will not be stronger or more intelligent than ordinary men. But those with supramental mind will transcend human limitations.
Eckhart Tolle, the popular spiritual teacher on Oprah Winfrey TV show, writes on evolution as follows: "Most crawling reptilians, the most earthbound of all creatures, have remained unchanged for millions of years. Some, however, grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, thus defying the force of gravity that had held them for so long. They did not become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely." (A New Earth: Awakening to Life"s Purpose, P. 3).
Tolle correctly describes the goal of evolution as laid out by Sri Aurobindo.
Sri Aurobindo wrote 2 chapters on pain and suffering in The Life Divine. His views can be summarized thus.
1. In life, pain is a smaller element than joy. With almost no exception, there is more joy than pain in life. If pain was the greater element, people would commit suicide. The fact is that almost nobody wishes to die.
2. Pleasure is our normal state and pain is abnormal. We feel pain more intensely because it is abnormal.
3. Suffering is not suffering from a higher vantage point.
4. Pain is "the hammer of the gods." Pain helps break down our resistance to the truth and erodes the hold of the ego.
5. Sri Aurobindo does not want us to invite suffering into our lives or to inculcate it. His yoga does not emphasize asceticism or renunciation as some Indian paths do. If suffering comes, one should accept it calmly.
Christians seek Heaven, Buddhists seek Nirvana and Hindus seek Moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. These are otherworldly goals. Salvation and freedom lies elsewhere, not here on earth in this life. Sri Aurobindo is affirmative. The goal is not the attainment of Heaven in afterlife but a perfect life here on earth.
The solution to mankind"s problems consists in spiritual rebirth. The true aim will regard man as not a mind, a life and a body, but as a Soul incarnated for divine fulfillment on earth.
The goal is to live from within, from the soul center. The aim is to establish in society a true "inner theocracy," not the false theocracy of a Church, priesthood, an ummah, but that of the inner Priest, the inner Prophet.
Man"s goal is to discover hidden divinity in himself. "To fulfill God in life is man"s manhood." He starts from animal life but a divine existence is his objective. A person who lives in the Spirit is one with all.
SRI AUROBINDO"S FIVE DREAMS
Sri Aurobindo had five dreams. All are on the way to being fulfilled even though then they looked impractical at the time. For example, nobody expected the British Empire to crumble as it did after WWII.
1. The first of these dreams was a free India. India today is free. It won independence on 15 August 1947, Sri Aurobindo"s birthday. It was no coincidence.
2. Sri Aurobindo"s second dream was that Asia will rise. Asia today is resurgent. Japan is the second largest economy in the world. China promises to be a new economic and military super power, even though its politics is backward and freedoms are denied. India is economically not far behind. The true value of India is its spiritual heritage, something that the modern Indian elite deprecate.
3. Another dream was the spiritual gift of India to the world. This too has already begun. India"s spirituality is entering Europe and America in an ever increasing measure. Unitarian Church leaders acknowledge this gift. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the founding fathers of Unitarian movements in the U.S. was greatly influenced by his reading of the Hindu scriptures. Similarly, Theosophy drew much of its inspiration from the Hindu spiritual tradition. As mentioned before, in early 2008, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Eckhart Tolle over several weeks. Who could imagine that Oprah will bring the message of Eastern Spirituality to the Western world? It is said that 9 to 11 million people around the globe tuned in to the web castes. Tolle talked of Zen and the Upanishads. Tolle"s message originates in Hindu Vedanta. All this is a new development. A mere 50 years ago, India along with the rest of Asia was deemed to be the eternal home of ignorance, superstition and depravity. It was Thomas Macaulay, an eminent 19th century British literary figure who said that a single shelf of good European library had more worth than all the native literature of India and Arabia.
4. The fourth dream of a world union is under way but not yet fully realized. Some global unification has occurred. In language, culture, economics and technology and many other fields, the world is on its way to a powerful unification. English is literally the global lingua franca. Art, culture, music now have a global audience. The Beatles are known globally, so is Ravi Shankar. The economic interdependence of the world is amply demonstrated by the October 2008 economic meltdown. On the political front, democracy has taken root in a majority of the nations, the Middle Eastern countries being an exception to the otherwise global trend. Totalitarian ideologies are under the sunset. Slavery has been abolished; the last country to do so was Saudi Arabia in 1964. Colonialism is gone: countries that groaned under British, French and Russian imperialism are now free. We have managed to defeat Fascism and Communism, the two ideological scourges of the 20th century. Unhappily, a new ideology threatens world unity: the threat of radical Islam. Radical Islam is an ideology seeking to put women in subjugation, to increase conflict among religions and civilizations, and to divide humanity between believers and kafirs (unbelievers). In summary, the world has made progress in achieving language, cultural, and economic unity. Political unity is the last frontier to be conquered in humanity"s onward march.
5. Sri Aurobindo"s fifth and final dream was the spiritual evolution of man. Man must live from within, from his soul center. Man"s goal is to discover hidden divinity within himself. Yoga is a method in this enterprise. This is still a distant dream. Here the difficulties are more formidable. But progress is being made even on this front. More and more people are becoming "seekers", not just "believers." It is reported that more people in France call themselves Buddhist, Hindu or spiritual seekers than Protestant or Jewish. From 10 to 20 percent of the American public according to Robert Fuller subscribe to the New Thought teachings. Sri Aurobindo"s personal force is at work. The change will first occur in selected individuals and then spread more widely among the populace.
Sri Aurobindo has been a major force in my life in the lives of many others. He does not preach asceticism or withdrawal. But he was against conspicuous consumption, against show and excess. His affirmative philosophy about life is invigorating. He was not a pacifist, like Mahatma Gandhi was. He supported the British and the Allies against Hitler during WWII. His dreams are being fulfilled: India is free; Asia has risen; human race is being unified. The spiritual evolution of mankind is yet a distant goal but here too much progress is being made.
Such is the Life and Teachings of Sri Aurobindo, the 20th century philosopher, poet, mystic and a self-realized Gnostic being. It is time to revisit his teachings.
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References & Notes:
Additional recommended reading: www.sriaurobindoashram.com
Sri Aurobindo, Lights on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, India.
Sri Aurobindo, The Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindos Teachings and Method of Practice, Pondicherry, India; available in the U.S. at Lotus Light Publications, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.