Updated: Sep 26
The next three chapters in The Life Divine introduce the other two essential qualities of the ultimate principle (Sachchidandana), namely, consciousness (cit) and delight (ānanda). Chapter 10 starts off by asserting that the whole of phenomenal existence can be reduced to one fundamental principle, namely, a fundamental Force, “of which the peculiar property is vibration”. Echoing very ancient debates (somehow traceable back to Samkhya, but also revived in Kashmir Shaivism), Sri Aurobindo summarizes how the whole of phenomenal reality might be explained by appealing to the self-differentiating process of this unified Force. However,
The problem of consciousness is not solved by this theory; for it does not explain how the contact of vibrations of Force should give rise to conscious sensations. (Ch 10, 88)
The dualist school of Samkhya simply posits an inactive consciousness next to the universal Force. The problem, though, is that this view does not seem to account for how that inactive consciousness can activate the whole of experience. If we take a non-dual view, instead, we can admit that “Force is inherent in Existence. Shiva and Kali, Brahman and Shakti are one and not two who are separable” (Ch 10, 99). Sri Aurobindo grants that this account is more satisfying. In fact, this non-dual account dissipates the issue of how conscious activity can arise from inactive consciousness, or how experience can oscillate between the poles of action and inaction. Since existence is inherently shaped by this polarity, the fact that it oscillates within it becomes intelligible. But it is precisely here that a new and more profound interrogation arises:
The problem of the how thus eliminated, there presents itself the question of the why. Why should this possibility of a play of movement of Force translate itself at all? why should not Force of existence remain eternally concentrated in itself, infinite, free from all variation and formation? (Ch 10, 91)
This is in fact one of the most profound philosophical questions ever. Once an Eternal principle is admitted, why should that principle also express itself in something different from sheer, empty, timeless, undifferentiated eternity? In order for this question to make sense, we need to put aside both a strict materialism in which consciousness is reduced to matter and its pulsation, and the view according to which a Conscious Being is necessarily compelled by its own nature to express itself (a view that Sri Aurobindo attributes to ‘the Tantriks’, Ch 10, 91, but this reference is a bit puzzling, since one of the core tenets of nondual medieval Shaiva tantrism is precisely the absolute freedom of consciousness). In other words, “we must suppose [in Consciousness] an inherent freedom to manifest or not to manifest the potentiality of movement” (Ch 10, 91).
To solve this new issue, Sri Aurobindo calls first of all for an expansion of the meaning of ‘consciousness’. The rest of the chapter is devoted to illustrate how consciousness cannot be restricted to the ordinary waking experience that we usually have, but must be enlarged as to include both higher levels of consciousness (ranging up to the supramental level) and lower levels, going all the way down to matter itself. In other words, consciousness has to be seen as a continuum of different levels of experience, and each form of existence (each phenomenon) can be seen as a particular instantiation and modification of that continuum (in this sense, the idea of different levels of consciousness is but a corollary of the admission that consciousness is inherent to Existence, because then whatever the form that Existence takes, there will be a different kind of consciousness). As Sri Aurobindo concludes:
Thought has a right to suppose a unity where that unity is confessed by all other classes of phenomena and in one class only, not denied, but merely more concealed than in others. And if we suppose the unity to be unbroken, we then arrive at the existence of consciousness in all forms of the Force which is at work in the world. Even if there be no conscient or superconscient Purusha inhabiting all forms, yet is there in those forms a conscious force of being of which even their outer parts overtly or inertly partake. (Ch 10, 95)
Taking stock of this expanded notion of consciousness, Chapter 11 pursues the question about why consciousness should express itself in a manifold world. The answer is provided by the third quality of the ultimate principle, namely bliss or delight:
It is true that it has this potentiality, but it is not limited, bound or compelled by it; it is free. If, then, being free to move or remain eternally still, to throw itself into forms or retain the potentiality of form in itself, it indulges its power of movement and formation, it can be only for one reason, for delight. (Ch 11, 98)
This delight or bliss (ānanda) should not be confounded with ordinary feelings (although those ordinary feelings are reflections of it). In its fundamental sense, this is the delight of being itself for the sheer fact of existing, namely the delight of consciousness for the sheer fact of being conscious. As Sri Aurobindo explains:
The self-delight of Brahman is not limited, however, by the still and motionless possession of its absolute self-being. Just as its force of consciousness is capable of throwing itself into forms infinitely and with an endless variation, so also its self-delight is capable of movement, of variation, of revelling in that infinite flux and mutability of itself represented by numberless teeming universes. To loose forth and enjoy this infinite movement and variation of its self-delight is the object of its extensive or creative play of Force. (Ch 11, 99)
However, having presented this solution to the problem of why the ultimate principle expresses itself (it does so in order to enjoy itself), two new problems arise: pain and evil. If everything is but a play of a Conscious Being articulating itself for the sake of enjoying its own Being, how is it possible to admit the experience of pain? And how is it possible to acknowledge evil in the world?
Before addressing this issue, Sri Aurobindo takes care of displacing a number of assumption that would make the answer impossible. The first concerns “the idea of a personal extra-cosmic God” (Ch 11, 101). Under this assumption, there is no hope to solve the problem of pain and evil, since assuming that the Creator itself is not affected by them leads to undermine its own goodness:
For one who invents torture as a means of test or ordeal, stands convicted either of deliberate cruelty or of moral insensibility and, if a moral being at all, is inferior to the highest instinct of his own creatures. (Ch 11, 101)
In fact (against much of Western Theodicy), Sri Aurobindo even claims that “on no theory of an extra-cosmic moral God, can evil and suffering be explained” (Ch 11, 102). But once this assumption has been displaced, the issue becomes that of understanding “how came the sole and infinite Existence Consciousness-Bliss to admit into itself that which is not bliss, that which seems to be its positive negation” (Ch 11, 102).
The second assumption that needs to be displaced concerned the validity of ethical rules and intuitions (which provide the background for recognizing evil, as a moral phenomenon different from pain). In fact, Sri Aurobindo holds a relativist notion of ethics, in the sense that ethics is not grounded in the nature of things themselves, but rather constitutes a tool in the process of evolution:
ethics is a stage in evolution. That which is common to all stages is the urge of Sachchidananda towards selfexpression. This urge is at first non-ethical, then infra-ethical in the animal, then in the intelligent animal even anti-ethical for it permits us to approve hurt done to others which we disapprove when done to ourselves. In this respect man even now is only half-ethical. And just as all below us is infra-ethical, so there may be that above us whither we shall eventually arrive, which is supra-ethical, has no need of ethics. (Ch 11, 104)
This point is relevant because it underlines that ethical considerations cannot be applied to Sachchidananda as ultimate principle of reality. The solution to the problem of evil can thus be found only by deepening our understanding of the ultimate principle itself, which is the only principle common to all layers of reality (Ch 11, 105).
Chapter 12 announces in its very title the possible solution to this tangle. The root principle from which we should start, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the following observation:
if we look at World-Existence rather in its relation to the self-delight of eternally existent being, we may regard, describe and realise it as Lila, the play, the child’s joy, the poet’s joy, the actor’s joy, the mechanician’s joy of the Soul of things eternally young, perpetually inexhaustible, creating and re-creating Himself in Himself for the sheer bliss of that selfcreation, of that self-representation,—Himself the play, Himself the player, Himself the playground. […] The world of which we are a part is in its most obvious view a movement of Force; but that Force, when we penetrate its appearances, proves to be a constant and yet always mutable rhythm of creative consciousness casting up, projecting in itself phenomenal truths of its own infinite and eternal being; and this rhythm is in its essence, cause and purpose a play of the infinite delight of being ever busy with its own innumerable self-representations. This triple or triune view must be the starting-point for all our understanding of the universe. (Ch 12, 111).
From this principle, it follows that in fact all experience should be delightful, even when on the surface level it appears as painful or evil. At this point, Sri Aurobindo’s discussion takes a decidedly experiential (yogic) turn, by asserting that the solution to the problem of pain and evil consists in a transformation of our way of perceiving the world, so that we can actually perceive every possible experience as a delightful touch.
As he claims:
this triple vibration of pleasure, pain, indifference, being superficial, being an arrangement and result of our imperfect evolution, can have in it no absoluteness, no necessity. There is no real obligation on us to return to a particular contact a particular response of pleasure, pain or neutral reaction, there is only an obligation of habit. We feel pleasure or pain in a particular contact because that is the habit our nature has formed, because that is the constant relation the recipient has established with the contact. It is within our competence to return quite the opposite response, pleasure where we used to have pain, pain where we used to have pleasure. It is equally within our competence to accustom the superficial being to return instead of the mechanical reactions of pleasure, pain and indifference that free reply of inalienable delight which is the constant experience of the true and vast Bliss-Self within us. (Ch 12, 113)
This passage echoes a well-established topic in various contemplative traditions (including both ancient Buddhism and classical Yoga), which offer a variety of methods for increasing the flexibility and agility of perception, reprogramming it, and opening the possibility of experiencing the pleasant in the unpleasant, the unpleasant in the pleasant, or the neutral in both, as a way of discovering that there is no inherent necessity in the way in which we are ordinarily accustomed to react to the world.
But according to Sri Aurobindo, this contemplative training of perception should ultimately lead the practitioner to recognize that all experience is in fact delightful. The use of pain, suffering, evil is only a tool, an instrument used by Nature in order to guide the precarious moves of its creatures. In this sense, pain and evil have no ultimate or positive nature in themselves, they appear to be real only from the still inadequate and immature perspective of a not-yet-achieved process of evolution and maturation. As soon as Nature’s creatures grow in maturity and power, “the use and office of suffering diminishes, its raison d’être must finally cease to be and it can only continuo as an atavism of Nature” (Ch 12, 116). This is because
the universal soul all things and all contacts of things carry in them an essence of delight best described by the Sanskrit aesthetic term, rasa, which means at once sap or essence of a thing and its taste. It is because we do not seek the essence of the thing in its contact with us, but look only to the manner in which it affects our desires and fears, our cravings and shrinkings that grief and pain, imperfect and transient pleasure or indifference, that is to say, blank inability to seize the essence, are the forms taken by the Rasa. If we could be entirely disinterested in mind and heart and impose that detachment on the nervous being, the progressive elimination of these imperfect and perverse forms of Rasa would be possible and the true essential taste of the inalienable delight of existence in all its variations would be within our reach. (Ch 12, 116)
This means that the appearance of pain and evil are but stages in the process of evolution through which the ultimate principle itself expresses its own nature of the sake of enjoying it. It enjoys it partially at the beginning, and confusedly, insofar as its finite expressions (us) are unable to recognize the root of the movement, and remain caught in their surface stirrings, which are thus interpreted as pain or pleasure, good or evil. But as the evolutionary process naturally matures, these initial inadequate perceptions can (and shall) be replaced by a deeper appreciation of the purpose for which the whole shows goes on, which is the blissful aesthetic enjoyment of experience as such.
The chapter closes with an important paragraph that sketches the main steps of this evolutionary process, while at the same time suggesting a number of topics to be deepened in the following discussion:
If it then be asked why the One Existence should take delight in such a movement, the answer lies in the fact that all possibilities are inherent in Its infinity and that the delight of existence—in its mutable becoming, not in its immutable being,—lies precisely in the variable realisation of its possibilities. And the possibility worked out here in the universe of which we are a part, begins from the concealment of Sachchidananda in that which seems to be its own opposite and its self-finding even amid the terms of that opposite. Infinite being loses itself in the appearance of non-being and emerges in the appearance of a finite Soul; infinite consciousness loses itself in the appearance of a vast indeterminate inconscience and emerges in the appearance of a superficial limited consciousness; infinite self-sustaining Force loses itself in the appearance of a chaos of atoms and emerges in the appearance of the insecure balance of a world; infinite Delight loses itself in the appearance of an insensible Matter and emerges in the appearance of a discordant rhythm of varied pain, pleasure and neutral feeling, love, hatred and indifference; infinite unity loses itself in the appearance of a chaos of multiplicity and emerges in a discord of forces and beings which seek to recover unity by possessing, dissolving and devouring each other. In this creation the real Sachchidananda has to emerge. Man, the individual, has to become and to live as a universal being; his limited mental consciousness has to widen to the superconscient unity in which each embraces all; his narrow heart has to learn the infinite embrace and replace its lusts and discords by universal love and his restricted vital being to become equal to the whole shock of the universe upon it and capable of universal delight; his very physical being has to know itself as no separate entity but as one with and sustaining in itself the whole flow of the indivisible Force that is all things; his whole nature has to reproduce in the individual the unity, the harmony, the oneness-in-all of the supreme Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. (Ch 12, 118-119)
A few questions emerged during the reading group:
The ultimate principle takes delight in going through evolution. But is this process necessary (in the sense that the ultimate principle will have to go through all possibilities), or free (in the sense that some possibilities can be left out)? -- And how would this relate to Spinoza's view on this same topic?
What is exactly the argument against evil in Ch 11?
If the ultimate principle creates the individual, and if the individual does suffer in a sense, doesn't the ultimate principle remain somehow culpable of cruelty?
Sri Aurobindo distinguishes various levels of ethical life. What is the level common to all being?
Is the question about why should the ultimate principle manifest itself teleological in a sense? Doesn't it rely on a use of the principle of sufficient reason?