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The Life Divine, Ch13-15

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

After having introduced the nature of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, Sri Aurobindo starts a series of Chapter that will take use towards a sort of ‘descent’, from the Absolute to the finite. Chapter 13 opens with a quite interesting reflection on creativity, which is interpreted as the outpouring of the Absolute seeking its own self-manifestation (as a side note: Arnold Schönberg had quite similar thoughts on this topic). As Sri Aurobindo writes:

whatever comes into the world, seeks nothing but this, to be, to arrive at the intended form, to enlarge its selfexistence in that form, to develop, manifest, increase, realise infinitely the consciousness and the power that is in it, to have the delight of coming into manifestation, the delight of the form of being, the delight of the rhythm of consciousness, the delight of the play of force and to aggrandise and perfect that delight by whatever means is possible, in whatever direction, through whatever idea of itself may be suggested to it by the Existence, the Conscious-Force, the Delight active within its deepest being. (Ch 13, 121)

However, this gives us only a general principle. To begin with, this full expression of the Absolute cannot be realized within a finite form insofar as it remains enclosed in itself. The finite has not to be rejected or suppressed, and yet it has to open and blossom, to enlarge its perception in order to fulfill its own striving towards self-expression (Ch 13, 121).

We get then to a tripartite structure of ‘evolution’ that tackles the main phases of this process of maturation through which the Absolute expresses itself:

we have to conceive first of an involution and a self-absorption of conscious being into the density and infinite divisibility of substance, for otherwise there can be no finite variation; next, an emergence of the self-imprisoned force into formal being, living being, thinking being; and finally a release of the formed thinking being into the free realization of itself as the One and the Infinite at play in the world and by the release its recovery of the boundless existence-consciousnessbliss that even now it is secretly, really and eternally. This triple movement is the whole key of the world-enigma. (Ch 13, 122)

Here it might be possible to note a certain tension between two schemes, which do not seem to work exactly the same. The scheme presented in the above passage entails an oscillatory movement, from the Absolute to its negation, back to a middle point in which the two are balanced. Another scheme that will emerge as well is more gradualist and indicates how we can move from the Absolute to the finite step by step. The former has a more dialectical ring to it (moving through thesis, antithesis, and synthesis). The latter scheme echoes the traditional ontology of the 36 tattvas common among tantric lineages. It is not immediately obvious that the two schemes are equivalent, although they can be used for different purposes: the dialectical scheme to underscore the teleological movement heading back to the fullest expression of the Absolute, while the gradualist scheme to ensure that in this process there are indeed no jumps or gaps, but all possibilities are taken into account and expressed.

The problem with the dialectical scheme is to understand how the Absolute can reverse itself immediately in its opposite (i.e. how we go from thesis to antithesis). The problem with the gradualist scheme, instead, is to understand how the Absolute can revert back to itself once it has exhausted all possibilities and descended in the lowest form (usually the element ‘earth’). The fact that this tension is somehow intended in Sri Aurobindo’s writing becomes explicit as he remarks that

It is so that the ancient and eternal truth of Vedanta receives into itself and illumines, justifies and shows us all the meaning of the modern and phenomenal truth of evolution in the universe. And it is so only that this modern truth of evolution which is the old truth of the Universal developing itself successively in Time, seen opaquely through the study of Force and Matter, can find its own full sense and justification,—by illuminating itself with the Light of the ancient and eternal truth still preserved for us in the Vedantic Scriptures. To this mutual self-discovery and self-illumination by the fusion of the old Eastern and the new Western knowledge the thought of the world is already turning. (Ch 13, 122)

The tension just mentioned arises from the fact that the ‘eternal truth of Vedanta’ (the gradualist scheme) does not seem to make room for the ‘phenomenal truth of evolution’ (the dialectical scheme) and vice versa. It is Sri Aurobindo that sees the importance of attempting the synthesis between these two approaches (a synthesis that has also apologetic and complex colonialist overtones). Yet, the result of bringing these two schemes together is to create a theoretical conceptual pressure for seeking a possible reconciliation of them. How to do this, is to be looked for in the rest of The Life Divine.

An initial answer begins to emerge already in this same chapter, when Sri Aurobindo points out that some sort of intermediary entity is needed between the Absolute and its finite expressions (hence the thesis and antithesis in the dialectical scheme). The reason for this intermediary is twofold: (1) the infinite can produce only infinite effects (Spinoza would agree, E1p21), and (2) the finite effects (the phenomenal world) show an inherent order that cannot be explained by the nature of Mind alone.

Sri Aurobindo introduces Maya as “the power of infinite consciousness to comprehend, contain in itself and measure out, that is to say, to form—for form is delimitation—Name and Shape out of the vast Illimitable Truth of infinite existence” (Ch 13, 123). This power is the very power of the Absolute, but it is also oriented to pick out from the Absolute and somehow determine within it the ‘Name and Shape’ (nama-rupa) of finite entities. In this way, the apparently puzzling relation between finite and infinite is solved by seeing the finite as the process of self-delimitation of the infinite. The finite is not ontologically different or ‘other’ with respect to the infinite, but it is the infinite itself (the infinite seen as power) in the process of articulating itself.

Maya itself is twofold, there is a ‘higher’ Maya in which all differences are included, involved, connected in the same unity, and there is a ‘lower’ Maya in which differences take the appearance of distinct entities (Ch 13, 124). The ‘higher’ Maya is thus identified with the Supermind (topic for next chapters), while the ‘lower’ Maya with the Mind. For present purposes, though, we can first tackle the second issue mentioned above concerning the order observed among finite effects (which would then justify the intermediation of Maya).

Sri Aurobindo briefly discusses two forms of idealist views (Ch 13, 125), which he calls ‘noumenal’ (arguably a variety of orthodox Advaita, in which the Absolute is a pure voidness, but possibly also a Buddhist variety of idealism), and ‘idealist’ (arguably a more tantric view in which the reality of the Absolute expresses itself in the reality of its manifestations). Sri Aurobindo sits with the latter, but in an even strengthened form. From this vantage point, he claims that “Mind is not sufficient to explain existence in the universe” (Ch 13, 126). As we shall see in the next chapters, Mind is identified as a principle that knows by analysis and differentiation, but also by relying on external sources: it “is a reflective mirror which receives presentations or images of a pre-existent Truth or Fact” (Ch 13, 127). If all reality was nothing but the play of Mind, then the whole of reality would be groundless, orderless, and truthless, because Mind, by its own nature, cannot provide the ground for its own experiences. And this is the implicit critique (or diagnose) that Sri Aurobindo addresses to Buddhist idealism (chittamatra or yogacara), which recognized that ‘everything is mind’ but also that the phenomenal expressions of the world is necessarily illusory or mistaken (cf. Ch 13, 128). In more positive terms, Sri Aurobindo is making an empirical objection to the idea that Mind (the ‘lower Maya’) is all that there is to consciousness, in the sense that this assumption does not seem to match with actual experience:

For we perceive behind the action of Mind, Life and Body, something that is not embraced in the stream of Force but embraces and controls it; something that is not born into a world which it seeks to interpret, but has created in its being a world of which it has the omniscience; something that does not labour perpetually to form something else out of itself while it drifts in the overmastering surge of past energies it can no longer control, but has already in its consciousness a perfect Form of itself and is here gradually unfolding it. The world expresses a foreseen Truth, obeys a predetermining Will, realises an original formative self-vision, —it is the growing image of a divine creation. (Ch 13, 128)

Once again, against the claim that there is ‘only this’, Sri Aurobindo contends that ‘there is also that’. More generally, this claim tries to vindicate a sense of purposefulness and teleology that is deeply rooted in existence, as if it would be possible to sense, from any point in the universe, the fact that that point is a traveling pattern heading towards a fulfillment yet to come.

From the perspective of the tension between the two schemes evoked above, we can see how this sort of reflection uses the second ‘gradualist’ scheme to fill in the lacunae implied by the first ‘dialectical’ scheme. The dialectical scheme traces the general trajectory of the process, while the gradualist scheme shows the many stages and twists that it has to take in order to actually travel through that trajectory.

The next two chapters reflect on the nature of the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ Maya phrasing now them in terms of ‘Supermind’ and ‘Mind’. Chapter 14 contrasts the nature of the two, and the key point here is the role that unity plays. In a nutshell, Mind is a way of experiencing reality through separation and articulation, while Supermind corresponds to an experience of identity-within-difference and difference-within-identity.

Concerning the Mind, Sri Aurobindo observes:

Mind is an instrument of analysis and synthesis, but not of essential knowledge. Its function is to cut out something vaguely from the unknown Thing in itself and call this measurement or delimitation of it the whole, and again to analyse the whole into its parts which it regards as separate mental objects. (Ch 14, 135)

By contrast,

Supermind is the vast self-extension of the Brahman that contains and develops. By the Idea it develops the triune principle of existence, consciousness and bliss out of their indivisible unity. It differentiates them, but it does not divide. (Ch 14, 137)

Since the Mind is an emanation of Supermind, Sri Aurobindo maintains that the nature of Supermind cannot be entirely out of reach from the Mind. In other words, even if it might sound exotic or distant, the working of the Mind are expressions (somehow disfigured) of the underpinning power of the Supermind, and hence it should always be possible to move from one to the other. As he contends: “the error is to make an unbridgeable gulf between God and man, Brahman and the world” (Ch 14, 139-140).

Chapter 15 deepens the nature of the Supermind, by connecting it with the experience of time and space (which again in tantric non-dual philosophy are usually considered as the most general qualities that define individuals within the experience of Divine consciousness, cf. e.g. Utpaladeva’s Stanzas on the Recognition of the Lord). While time and space are usually categories needed to articulate distinction and finitude, from the point of view of Supermind, “Time and Space are that one Conscious-Being viewing itself in extension, subjectively as Time, objectively as Space” (Ch 15, 142). This provides one instance of the way in which Supermind synthetises differences within unity, by subsuming the very principles of articulations under its own eternal nature and experience.

However, Supermind entails also a form of inner teleology or urge to expression that then manifests in finite forms, more or less consciously. This has to do with the fact that Supermind is not only a knowing but also a willing and a power of acting, which then tries to express itself in finite forms (Ch 15, 145).

A third characterization of Supermind that follows from the above is the fact that its form of knowledge overcome the traditional division between knower, known and act of knowing, by unifying them all in the same process (Ch 15, 146). As Sri Aurobindo summarizes:

The Supermind, pervading and inhabiting at once the seed and the tree and all objects, lives in this greater knowledge which is indivisible and one though with a modified and not an absolute indivisibility and unity. In this comprehensive knowledge there is no independent centre of existence, no individual separated ego such as we see in ourselves; the whole of existence is to its self-awareness an equable extension, one in oneness, one in multiplicity, one in all conditions and everywhere. Here the All and the One are the same existence; the individual being does not and cannot lose the consciousness of its identity with all beings and with the One Being; for that identity is inherent in supramental cognition, a part of the supramental self-evidence. (Ch 15, 148)

This view raises the next question, namely, “what then is the origin of mentality?” (Ch 15, 149). Sri Aurobindo suggests that Mind emerges in steps, as the “knowledge centralises itself and stands back from its works to observe them” (Ch 15, 149). In other words, as the creative and knowing power of Supermind, which essentially sees itself in its own object and viceversa, steps back from this process to observe it, then it makes the object more real and hence more separate as it were, giving rise to a process of ‘solidification’ of the object itself into a seemingly real and distinct entity or substance in its own right (again, an explanation that occurs already in traditional non-dual tantric Shaivism). Exploring further how this process occurs will thus be the goal of the next chapters.

A few questions emerged during the reading group:

  • What is the meaning of 'Law' mentioned by Sri Aurobindo?

  • Is the vision defended here verging towards a form of determinism? Especially based on the metaphor of the tree entailing in itself the tree...

  • How does the notion of Unity (p. 136) works? How does that relate to differentiation?

  • What is the nature of the 'Idea' mentioned several times in this text? Can it be related to Hegelian or other Western accounts of 'Ideas'? Or to Indian sources? Or both?

  • Is Sri Aurobindo defending a more pantheist or rather a panentheist view?

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