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The Life Divine, Ch 6-9

Updated: Sep 12

With Chapter 6, Sri Aurobindo starts to explore in greater detail the integral view that he seeks to establish. After having shown the limitations of strict reductionist materialism or spiritualism, he has announced that the Absolute principle should be conceived in such a way as to encompass and resolve in itself all oppositions (between finite and infinite, material and spiritual, etc.). At the beginning of the chapter, we’re introduced to the traditional trinity of Vedantic (i.e. Upanishadic) thought, namely, Sat (reality, being), Cit (consciousness), and Ananda (bliss). Sachchidandana (as Sri Aurobindo spells it) indicates the ultimate nature of the Absolute and thus of reality:

Sachchidananda is the unknown, omnipresent, indispensable term for which the human consciousness, whether in knowledge and sentiment or in sensation and action, is eternally seeking. (Ch 6, 49)

The general theme takes shape here is that all manifestations of reality are forms of Sachchidananda itself in its own seeking to fully express and enjoy its own nature. Wherever the manifestation is seemingly lacking even just a part of the Absolute, it is only because that manifestation is not ultimate, but it is only a step in a broader movement of expression. Hence, matter is a partial manifestation, that by itself leads to life, which again by itself leads to mental life, which in turn (as it will become clearer in subsequent chapters) has to reach beyond, to the supermind.

However, this process of expression is not linear or purely additive, in the sense that it does not consist in a mere sequence of distinct degrees or elements, in which each one adds just something extra to the previous. The process is dialectical in the sense that is moves through negations, and finds in its negative components the propellers for its own advancement. As Sri Aurobindo puts it:

Awakened to a profounder self-knowledge than his first mental idea of himself, Man begins to conceive some formula and to perceive some appearance of the thing that he has to affirm. But it appears to him as if poised between two negations of itself. If, beyond his present attainment, he perceives or is touched by the power, light, bliss of a self-conscious infinite existence and translates his thought or his experience of it into terms convenient for his mentality,—Infinity, Omniscience, Omnipotence, Immortality, Freedom, Love, Beatitude, God,— yet does this sun of his seeing appear to shine between a double Night,—a darkness below, a mightier darkness beyond. For when he strives to know it utterly, it seems to pass into something which neither any one of these terms nor the sum of them can at all represent. His mind at last negates God for a Beyond, or at least it seems to find God transcending Himself, denying Himself to the conception. Here also, in the world, in himself, and around himself, he is met always by the opposites of his affirmation. Death is ever with him, limitation invests his being and his experience, error, inconscience, weakness, inertia, grief, pain, evil are constant oppressors of his effort. Here also he is driven to deny God, or at least the Divine seems to negate or to hide itself in some appearance or outcome which is other than its true and eternal reality. (Ch 6, 52)

This passage puts into a new light a theme we encountered in the previous chapters. As we try to approach (even only conceptually) the nature of the Absolute, we encounter two apparent negations of its nature. One negation stands above, as the Absolute Transcendent, the ineffable, inexpressible, the Nihil (discussed already in Ch 4). But at its other extreme, we find another kind of negation, which seems to reject the very idea of infinitude, transcendence, and immateriality (thus falling into the sort of reductionist materialism introduced in Ch 2). While the higher Silence seems to deny the Absolute insofar as the Absolute is conceived as expressing itself within the world, the lower ‘inconscience’ of matter seems to deny the Absolute insofar as it pretends to stand above and beyond matter itself.

The integral approach pursued by Sri Aurobindo consists in discovering a way to appreciate how both these negations are in fact nothing but partial assertions (thus incomplete, but not entirely wrong) of the truth of the Absolute. We already encountered a first hint at how the higher negation (the Silence, the Nihil) can be seen as the ‘passive’ aspect of the Absolute (Brahman), to be reconciled and integrated with its ‘active’ or ‘dynamic’ aspect. Now, we also encounter a hint at the fact that the lower negation (the ‘materialist’ view) can in fact be seen as a necessary tool providentially and teleologically used by the Absolute in the process of its self-expression:

For Life, these things that seem to deny God, to be the opposites of Sachchidananda, are real, even if they turn out to be temporary. They and their opposites, good, knowledge, joy, pleasure, life, survival, strength, power, increase, are the very material of her workings. […] They are not the punishment of a fall, but the conditions of a progress. (Ch 6, 53)

This brings to the foreground one of the most radical, counterintuitive, provocative, and visionary claims defended by Sri Aurobindo (in this work and elsewhere), namely, that life as we know it (as essentially defined by its liability to death) has to be transformed and overcome into a life divine, an immortal life in which death will no longer be needed, and hence it will disappear. Sri Aurobindo does not conceive of this transformation as an eradication of death, as a rejection of it, but (in line with the integral approach) as a transfiguration that overcomes death and subsumes it at the same time (like Hegel’s aufhebung), since it recognizes that “this inferior negation also, this other contradiction or non-existence of Sachchidananda is none other than Sachchidananda itself” (Ch 6, 54).

In order to accomplish this feat, though, we first need to better understand the nature of Sachchidananda, deepen our experience of it, and from there descending into what seems to be other than it, in order to rediscover there the same light. But the most imminent task before this descent is a more complete ascent, which seemingly begins in Chapter 7.

Sri Aurobindo takes up a potential objection about the infeasibility to what he has just announced (lifting life beyond death). Renunciant traditions have made it acceptable to conceive the possibility of a merging of the individual with the higher expressions of the Absolute while discarding its lower expressions. Leaving behind worldly life to withdraw into an ethereal realm might seem difficult, but it appears possible. But merging these two apparent contradictory realms of existence seems a sheer impossibility. To this, Sri Aurobindo replies:

The error of the practical reason is an excessive subjection to the apparent fact which it can immediately feel as real and an insufficient courage in carrying profounder facts of potentiality to their logical conclusion. What is, is the realisation of an anterior potentiality; present potentiality is a clue to future realisation. (Ch 7, 62)

Behind this error there is a natural attitude towards self-limitation, and this attitude is identified with the very core of our ordinary personality, the ego:

The nature of the ego is a self-limitation of consciousness by a willed ignorance of the rest of its play and its exclusive absorption in one form, one combination of tendencies, one field of the movement of energies. Ego is the factor which determines the reactions of error, sorrow, pain, evil, death; for it gives these values to movements which would otherwise be represented in their right relation to the one Existence, Bliss, Truth and Good. By recovering the right relation we may eliminate the ego-determined reactions, reducing them eventually to their true values; and this recovery can be effected by the right participation of the individual in the consciousness of the totality and in the consciousness of the transcendent which the totality represents. (Ch 7, 63)

While Buddhists are most famous for their criticism of self-views and sometimes for their denial of the existence of a Self, the topic of overcoming a finite, ordinary ego is in fact an ecumenical thread across most contemplative traditions (both in India and elsewhere). The reason why radical transformation seems impossible is because we look at that from an already asserted identification with a certain state or form, which we call ‘me’, and see its overcoming as its destruction, which we fear and reject. By contrast, when the ego-possession is relinquished:

We have the dissolution of this egoistic construction by the self-opening of the individual to the universe and to God as the means of that supreme fulfilment to which egoistic life is only a prelude even as animal life was only a prelude to the human. We have the realisation of the All in the individual by the transformation of the limited ego into a conscious centre of the divine unity and freedom as the term at which the fulfilment arrives. (Ch 7, 64-65)

But how do we make this realization?

Chapter 8 provides some cues about this issue by examining several different kinds of knowledge and their possible integration. As a general principle, Sri Aurobindo states that “every concept is incomplete for us and to a part of our nature almost unreal until it becomes an experience” (Ch 8, 67). Investigating the possible means we have to know reality necessarily entails investigating the possible ways we have of experiencing reality. Knowledge divorced from experience is unreal.

On the one hand, we can arrive at an idea of the Absolute and how it might transcend any finite being through pure reason alone (this is a recurrent topic in both Western and Indian philosophy). And yet, this would be still incomplete if we had no way of experiencing what this idea is trying to convey. Coming back to a point already discussed earlier (Ch 2), Sri Aurobindo points out that we can’t pretend to limit our knowledge and experience to the sheer immediacy of sensory impressions. A reductionist empiricism of this sort (à la Hume, for instance), is unacceptably narrow. Reason, already, seems to be a natural faculty that by its own virtue is capable of bringing us beyond this narrow domain. Sri Aurobindo distinguishes here between a ‘practical’ reason that is concerned with sorting out and planning actions, and a ‘pure’ reason that is encountered “when it seeks to become aware of itself, the subject” (Ch 8, 68), and then becomes capable of testifying that “all experience is in its secret nature knowledge by identity” (Ch 8, 68).

From the point of view of this ‘pure reason’, Sri Aurobindo contends that the apparent limitations of our knowledge and experience can already be partially overcome. Introducing a topic that he discussed in his Synthesis of Yoga and echoes the yogic tradition concerning the development of special sensory powers (siddhis), he contends that perception could be possible also without the intermediary of physical senses, and in this form, it could significantly extend its range and scope. However, even this expansion of the field of experience would still not bring us to the Absolute. In order to make that step, we need to turn pure reason onto its very ground, by investigating “the awareness of our own existence” (Ch 8, 71):

If then we can extend our faculty of mental self-awareness to awareness of the Self beyond and outside us, Atman or Brahman of the Upanishads, we may become possessors in experience of the truths which form the contents of the Atman or Brahman in the universe. It is on this possibility that Indian Vedanta has based itself. It has sought through knowledge of the Self the knowledge of the universe. (Ch 8, 71)

The gist of this movement is that if we can become really and fully self-aware of our own existence, we would discover (experientially, directly, immediately) that such an existence is infinite, and that it is conscious bliss (sat, cit, ananda). But this move is not easily accomplished by ordinary reason, even in its pure form. Sri Aurobindo suggests that the only way of making this move is by relying on a form of knowledge that is even more profound, even if only veiled in ordinary waking experience, namely, intuition:

the foundation of intuitional knowledge is conscious or effective identity between that which knows and that which is known; it is that state of common self-existence in which the knower and the known are one through knowledge (Ch 8, 72)

The (implicit) argument why pure reason cannot by itself yield an experiential knowledge of an infinite self-existence is that reason remains a form of dualistic knowledge, which splits the object of experience apart from its subject. Insofar as this dualistic split remains in place, whatever is conceived cannot be conceived as immediately and directly infinite (although it can be symbolized, conceptualized, or asserted to be such), because it would stand against another. The infinite would be either the object for another subject, or the subject facing certain objects. But insofar as the fundamental duality between subject and object is not overcome, in neither position can the infinite be and appear as genuinely absolute. Since intuition is a kind of knowledge based on the complete overcoming of this duality, it is intuition that gives access to an immediate self-awareness of our own existence as infinite.

Our possibility of experiencing Sachchidananda thus relies on our power of (or ability to cultivate) intuitive knowledge:

At the most in the phenomenon of selfawareness or behind it, we get sometimes a glimpse of something immovable and immutable, something that we vaguely perceive or imagine that we are beyond all life and death, beyond all change and formation and action. Here is the one door in us that sometimes swings open upon the splendour of a truth beyond and, before it shuts again, allows a ray to touch us,—a luminous intimation which, if we have the strength and firmness, we may hold to in our faith and make a starting-point for another play of consciousness than that of the sense-mind, for the play of Intuition. (Ch 8, 73)

This appeal to intuition is not meant to invite anybody to leave reason or even imagination behind. On the contrary, the integral approach consists in taking intuition as a guide, and then use reason to work out the view opened by it, articulating it in rational terms, so that the lower faculty can fully absorb the higher revelation and thus elevating its own way of functioning. Sri Aurobindo suggests that this view might provide a key to understand the evolution of Indian thought (which started with intuitive expression, further articulated in rational forms, Ch 8, 74-75), but the principle is general:

this process which seems to be a descent, is really a circle of progress. For in each case the lower faculty is compelled to take up as much as it can assimilate of what the higher had already given and to attempt to re-establish it by its own methods. By the attempt it is itself enlarged in its scope and arrives eventually at a more supple and a more ample self accommodation to the higher faculties. Without this succession and attempt at separate assimilation we should be obliged to remain under the exclusive domination of a part of our nature while the rest remained either depressed and unduly subjected or separate in its field and therefore poor in its development. With this succession and separate attempt the balance is righted; a more complete harmony of our parts of knowledge is prepared. (Ch 8, 75)

This methodological discussion prepares the ground for the re-examination and re-phrasing of the issue we already encountered about the nature of the Absolute, which is taken up again in Chapter 9. When we use intuition in order to get in touch with self-existence, we realize that we have in fact two intuitions about the nature of that self-existence: on the one hand, we can conceive it as cosmic dynamism, movement, force, which expresses itself everywhere and in everything; on the other hand, we encounter it as pure, immobile, static Being, aloof and untouched by everything in the world. As Sri Aurobindo puts it:

But there is a supreme experience and supreme intuition by which we go back behind our surface self and find that this becoming, change, succession are only a mode of our being and that there is that in us which is not involved at all in the becoming. […] The pure existent is then a fact and no mere concept; it is the fundamental reality. But, let us hasten to add, the movement, the energy, the becoming are also a fact, also a reality. The supreme intuition and its corresponding experience may correct the other, may go beyond, may suspend, but do not abolish it. We have therefore two fundamental facts of pure existence and of worldexistence, a fact of Being, a fact of Becoming. To deny one or the other is easy; to recognise the facts of consciousness and find out their relation is the true and fruitful wisdom. (Ch 9, 85)

Again, the process of exploration is not linear but dialectical. In order to overcome the epistemic duality of reason, we rely on intuition. But intuition does not yield, at first, a single unified and consistent view of the Absolute, but rather a twofold immage, a sort of metaphysical dissonance that resonates with activity and stillness at the same time. When we search for existence (sat), we do not find just one nature, but a twofold nature, which has to be acknowledged and integrated in its own complexity. Does the same apply when we look for the other aspects of Sachchidananda? This is the topic of the upcoming chapters.

A few questions emerged during the reading group:

  1. What is the status of humanity in Aurobindo's thought? Are human beings somehow superior to other species? If so, how would that square with his claim that we are all expressions of the same Absolute?

  2. How does direct experience and argumentation relate in this work? Is this only a theoretical work interested in articulating a certain knowledge or vision, or does it also attempt at changing how we experience the world?

  3. How can we relate the appeal to intuition in Aurobindo, to similar appeals that emerge in the late 19th European culture, among theosophists and spiritists? Can we see this as a sort of reaction to Positivism?

  4. How can we really reconcile The One and the Many in Aurobindo's view? If the mind, by itself, is inevitably led to cut up reality into concepts, is this reconciliation even thinkable at all?

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