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The Life Divine, ch 3-5

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

After having introduced the limitations of one extreme view on the nature of reality—reductionist materialism—we now approach the other opposite extreme, asceticism, according to which only the Spirit is genuinely real.

Ch 3 starts off this discussion with a preliminary justification of the very idea that there might be something beyond matter and material experience (offering thus a continuation of Ch 2). For the materialist, the main reason to reject anything above matter is the impossibility to experience it (whatever it is) through the senses:

Matter, would persuade us that the suprasensible is the unreal. This vulgar or rustic error of our corporeal organs does not gain in validity by being promoted into the domain of philosophical reasoning. Obviously, their pretension is unfounded. (Ch 3, 21)

Since the materialist objection is based on experience, the first line of answering it is also based on experience. It consists in simply denying that the whole of experience can be reduced to what is testified by the physical senses. In this context, Sri Aurobindo mentions as counterevidence ‘telepathy with its cognate phenomena’ as a domain of investigation still much obscure and yet real. This is one of the ‘occultist’ threads that are interwoven in the Life Divine, in which what is ordinarily regarded as ‘paranormal’ is integrated as a range of phenomena yet to be fully understood and explained, rather than dismissed a priori as impossible.

A more general argument, however, is that even the most rationalist Western philosophy (take Descartes, for instance) would grant that the whole of experience cannot be reduced to what is accessible to direct observation. Even contemporary science is built on much that can be observed only through sophisticated instrumentation, or perhaps yet to be observed.

However, even a broadening of physical experience to a ‘super-physical’ range, would not exhaust what Spiritualism entails, since:

the worlds are only frames for our experience, the senses only instruments of experience and conveniences. Consciousness is the great underlying fact, the universal witness for whom the world is a field, the senses instruments. […] all phenomenal existence consists of an observing consciousness and an active objectivity, and the Action cannot proceed without theWitness because the universe exists only in or for the consciousness that observes and has no independent reality. (Ch 3, 22-23)

We reach here what might be called a ‘transcendental’ argument against materialism. In order for any experience of matter (or of anything else) to occur, that experience needs to be manifest within consciousness. Hence, consciousness (as a witnessing space within which everything else can appear) is prior by nature to anything else (and a fortiori as real as anything else). This argument is ‘transcendental’ in the Kantian sense that reflects on the conditions of possibility of experience, and it is well-known to Indian philosophy, having been articulated (for instance) by both Yogacara Buddhist philosophers, and then reshaped by non-dual Shaiva thinkers (Uptaladeva and Abhinava Gupta, for instance).

The next problem that arises from this view is that the reality of what appears in consciousness can be doubted or reduced to sheer illusion. In other words, a form of reductionist idealism can claim that only consciousness (as the ground of reality) is real, and all phenomena that appear as objects within consciousness are nothing but dreams, illusions, maya. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo remarks that also materialism can arrive at a similar conclusion, by inducing the belief that life, mind, selfhood, and existential values are nothing but epipheomena of the mechanical operations of dead matter (p. 23). This leads us to the deepest clash between materialism and spiritualism in their extreme forms (both of which leads to a kind of irrealism). This issue, though, cannot be solved by resting content with ordinary experience because ‘in those data there is always a hiatus of experience which renders all arguments inconclusive’ (p. 24). We need something else:

Only by an extension of the field of our consciousness or an unhoped-for increase in our instruments of knowledge can the ancient quarrel be decided.
The extension of our consciousness, to be satisfying, must necessarily be an inner enlargement from the individual into the cosmic existence. For the Witness, if he exists, is not the individual embodied mind born in the world, but that cosmic Consciousness embracing the universe. (Ch 3, 24)

The method for proceeding in the exploration of the dilemma between materialism and spiritualism thus requires to take consciousness as our leading thread, and then to enlarge the field of consciousness up to its cosmic dimension. Sri Aurobindo mentions that ‘modern Psychology’ recognizes the possibility of cosmic consciousness, and he associates it with the ‘exceeding of the limits imposed on us by the ego-sense’. Despite any absence of further explicit reference, this seems indeed the view defended two decades earlier by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he connected the experiences of boundlessness common in various religious traditions to a dissolution (even temporary) of the ego.

However, this is just the first step in preparing the stage for tackling the issue of Spiritualism. In its extreme and most reductionist form, Spiritualism does not limit itself to the assertion of a cosmic consciousness, but rather transcends even that, asserting a principle that ‘is more than the universe and lives independently in Its own inexpressible infinities. […] World lives by That; That does not live by the world’ (Ch 3, 26). This leads us ‘at the gates of the Transcendent’ (ibid.) where the real issue is located. Historically speaking, Sri Aurobindo tackles the form of Spiritual Monism advocated by Shankaracharya and his version of Advaita-Vedanta (9th cent. CE). He acknowledges that:

the mind, when it passes those gates suddenly, without intermediate transitions, receives a sense of the unreality of the world and the sole reality of the Silence which is one of the most powerful and convincing experiences of which the human mind is capable. Here, in the perception of this pure Self or of the Non-Being behind it, we have the starting point for a second negation,—parallel at the other pole to the materialistic, but more complete, more final, more perilous in its effects on the individuals or collectivities that hear its potent call to the wilderness,—the refusal of the ascetic. (Ch 3, 26)

The real problem is to understand whether and how it is possible to integrate this experience of Silence within the rest of the whole spectrum of experience—or whether, instead, the Silence reveals inevitably and necessarily the falsehood and noise of all the rest.

Chapter 4 begins dealing with this topic (at this very high pitch). Sri Aurobindo introduces first a positive answer, which represents his own integral view and it is built on the idea that the absolute principle (Brahman) has ‘two aspects, positive and negative’ (Ch 4, 31):

Those who have thus possessed the Calm within can perceive always welling out from its silence the perennial supply of the energies that work in the universe. It is not, therefore, the truth of the Silence to say that it is in its nature a rejection of the cosmic activity. The apparent incompatibility of the two states is an error of the limited Mind which, accustomed to trenchant oppositions of affirmation and denial and passing suddenly from one pole to the other, is unable to conceive of a comprehensive consciousness vast and strong enough to include both in a simultaneous embrace. The Silence does not reject the world; it sustains it. Or rather it supports with an equal impartiality the activity and the withdrawal from the activity and approves also the reconciliation by which the soul remains free and still even while it lends itself to all action. (Ch 4, 31)

Again, the main argument against reductionist Spiritualism is empirical or experiential. The very experience of the supreme Silence does not yield a full-blown negation of the world, but rather a Calm within which all activity arises. To the ascetic who hurries towards dissolution into that Silence and renunciation of all action, Sri Aurobindo (seemingly echoing the Gita), urges to wait, and listen more carefully to what that experience is really telling them. The idea of opposing Calm and Action is yet another way in which the dualist working of the mind takes hold of reality, and failing to do so, eventually can only split its truth into opposing inadequate ideas.

Next to this experiential argument, comes a more conceptual (or perhaps even semantic) one. The objection of the Spiritualist, at this point, reduces to the fact that in pointing to an absolute Nihil, one is genuinely aiming at a full transcendence of the whole phenomenal world and all activities, and not just to a quiet background for their unfolding (in this way, the Spiritualist is also reacting on the experiential level, denying that the integral interpretation just presented fully capture what they mean by ‘Silence’ or ‘Nihil’—all these terms are used here as rough synonyms of what cannot be named).

To this, Sri Aurobindo replies by providing in turn an experiential analysis of what we really want to express when using apophantic language to name the absolute Transcendent:

We really mean by this Nothing something beyond the last term to which we can reduce our purest conception and our most abstract or subtle experience of actual being as we know or conceive it while in this universe. This Nothing then is merely a something beyond positive conception. We erect a fiction of nothingness in order to overpass, by the method of total exclusion, all that we can know and consciously are. Actually when we examine closely the Nihil of certain philosophies, we begin to perceive that it is a zero which is All or an indefinable Infinite which appears to the mind a blank, because mind grasps only finite constructions, but is in fact the only true Existence. (Ch 4, 32)

Apophantic language is a sort of antidote created by the mind against its tendency to getting stuck in its own narrowness. As we name the absolute ‘cosmic consciousness’, for instance, we might tend to identify it with a certain range of experience. But as this identification becomes absolute, it will inevitably exclude something else. It is in the very nature of language and conceptuality that, in order to indicate anything at all, it must determine it with respect to something else, hence negating something of it. This is a well-known fundamental problem even in Western philosophy (from Aristotle’s fourth book of the Metaphysics, to Spinoza’s Ethics and Hegel’s Science of Logic, to name but a few). Using apophantic language is a remedy meant to keep the mind open, and preserve the original and unbounded freedom of what is looked at.

In this sense, it is yet another form of mental grasping to hold on to negative concepts and keep pretending to radically divorce the absolute Transcendent from the rest of the world:

after reconciling Spirit and Matter in the cosmic consciousness, we perceive the reconciliation, in the transcendental consciousness, of the final assertion of all and its negation. We discover that all affirmations are assertions of status or activity in the Unknowable; all the corresponding negations are assertions of Its freedom both from and in that status or activity. (Ch 4, 34)

This leads to a panentheist inspiration that becomes now explicit (Ch 4, 35-36) in The Life Divine. In other words, the supreme principle is both immanently present in the world, and it transcends its manifestations—from which it follows that all attempts at dismissing the phenomenal world as illusionary is flawed, since what is dismissed is precisely the Absolute itself in one of its own manifestations.

This point is further developed in Chapter 5, which brings the focus to individual experience in relation to the Absolute. Traditionally, the experience of the Absolute is the experience of the dissolution of the individual (or the sense of ego-individuality). This leads to the Illusionist view of Shankara’s Advaita, in which there is no real bondage, no real freedom, and no one to be freed. Sri Aurobindo articulates the paradox in which this view culminates (pp. 43-44). From this (and other references) we can also infer that Shankara is also his main polemical target (more than Buddhism, and surely more than the historical Buddha himself, cf. Ch 4, p. 34).

The real alternative, which aims at integrating rather than opposing individual and transcendent experience, consists in acknowledging how the individual can function as an instrument of the divine (again, echoing a teaching that was advocated in the Gita):

if Brahman has entered into form and represented Its being in material substance, it can only be to enjoy self-manifestation in the figures of relative and phenomenal consciousness. Brahman is in this world to represent Itself in the values of Life. Life exists in Brahman in order to discover Brahman in itself. Therefore man’s importance in the world is that he gives to it that development of consciousness in which its transfiguration by a perfect self-discovery becomes possible. To fulfil God in life is man’s manhood. He starts from the animal vitality and its activities, but a divine existence is his objective. (Ch 5, 41)

This passage anticipates what seems already the gist of the whole Life Divine. It also introduces a crucial principle, which explains the reason (Leibniz might say ‘the sufficient reason’) for the experience of the world, namely, the self-enjoyment and self-consciousness of the divine in its own manifestation. This, arguably, is what is going to be the propelling principle that will account for the intricacy and articulation of the process of evolution.

From this point of view, the real ‘existential’ objection against Asceticism concerns its denial of the ‘lower’ domains of experience (mind, life, body). Asceticism, experientially speaking, reaches something real, and in that sense is a manifestation of the truth. But remaining fixating upon it in an exclusivist way, it undermines its truth and becomes delusional. The integral approach, instead, seeks to advances to any new domain of experience while preserving its link with all the others:

if in passing from one domain to another we renounce what has already been given us from eagerness for our new attainment, if in reaching the mental life we cast away or belittle the physical life which is our basis, or if we reject the mental and physical in our attraction to the spiritual, we do not fulfil God integrally, nor satisfy the conditions of His self-manifestation. We do not become perfect, but only shift the field of our imperfection or at most attain a limited altitude. However high we may climb, even though it be to the Non-Being itself, we climb ill if we forget our base. Not to abandon the lower to itself, but to transfigure it in the light of the higher to which we have attained, is true divinity of nature. (Ch 5, 41-42)

This passage encapsulates quite nicely the basic drive behind Sri Aurobindo’s ‘integral yoga’ as expounded in his Synthesis of Yoga. The integral movement is not only that of exploring the whole range of experience, but also trying to link the different layers in that range with one another, eventually arriving at their full integration and harmonization (the goal we already encountered in Ch 1). As Asceticism does the opposite, this one-sidedness appears too as its most serious and dangerous limitation.

The apparent contradiction between individual embodiment and transcendence, between calm and action, is thus resolved by regarding the individual as an embodiment of the transcendent in its movement of self-discovery and self-enjoyment (Ch 5, 43). The process of ‘illumination’ (the realization of this inner identity that links individual and Absolute) is not a process of suppression of the individual, but rather of expansion of its consciousness, boundaries, and faculties, which does not hinder them, but rather makes them more perfect (Ch 5, 45). How exactly this happens, remains still to be discussed.

A few questions emerged during the reading group:

  • What is exactly the bigger problem that Sri Aurobindo is trying to tackle in this work?

  • What is the right attitude or angle to approach this reading--knowing that following the standards of a strict contemporary Anglo-American approach, not much of this work seems to be very stringent?

  • What is the existential relevance of this discussion?

  • Did Sri Aurobindo know about Rammohun Roy's translation of the Upanishads? And might this have played any role in his attempt at differentiating them from the later Advaita-Vedanta?

  • What is God?

  • What is the difference between cosmic consciousness and what 'the Silence'?

  • How to understand the relation between the 'temporal' dimension of the discussion (in which there is evolution, integration of different views etc.) and the seemingly 'eternal' dimension in which everything seems to be already harmonized (supermind)?

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