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The Life Divine, Ch16-18

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

In this upcoming group of chapters, Sri Aurobindo continues the exposition of the nature of the Supermind and its relation to the ‘lower’ faculties (mind, life, body). Chapter 16 begins with a summary of the discussion developed in the previous chapters and restates the need for a mediation between the realm of ordinary experience (the ‘lower Maya’, the world of mind-life-body) and that of the Absolute. The issue is particularly relevant because

when we thus assert this unity of Sachchidananda on the one hand and this divided mentality on the other, we posit two opposite entities one of which must be false if the other is to be held as true, one of which must be abolished if the other is to be enjoyed. Yet it is in the mind and its form of life and body that we exist on earth and, if we must abolish the consciousness of mind, life and body in order to reach the one Existence, Consciousness and Bliss, then a divine life here is impossible. We must abandon cosmic existence utterly as an illusion in order to enjoy or re-become the Transcendent. From this solution there is no escape unless there be an intermediate link between the two which can explain them to each other and establish between them such a relation as will make it possible for us to realise the one Existence, Consciousness, Delight in the mould of the mind, life and body. (Ch 16, 153)

The link is precisely the Supermind, which is presented as a “logical necessity arising directly from the position with which we have started” (Ch 16, 153). The Supermind is not strictly an entity in its own right, but rather a process, or more precisely the process through which the Absolute “moving out into a determinative self-knowledge which perceives certain truths of itself and wills to realise them in a temporal and spatial extension of its own timeless and spaceless existence” (Ch 16, 154).

The chapter then continues by describing three ‘poises’ or stages through which this process of mediation moves from the Absolute (contracted within itself) to a more articulated form of expression. The first poise of the Supermind is characterized by perfect unity: everything is there, but as just one thing, without any sense of individuality or individuation. The second poise of the Supermind arises from it standing back from its own unfolding, realizing that there is just one consciousness or ‘soul-essence’ in everything, and yet, everything is a different form of that same consciousness. The third poise entails a greater involvement of the Supermind with the multiplicity hosted within it, a “fundamental blissful dualism in unity […] between the individual Divine and its universal source” (Ch 16, 158).

It can be observed that this threefold distinction corresponds quite neatly with three of the five higher tattvas of the 36-fold scheme of nondual Shaiva tantrism (the two highest tattvas can be assimilated to the Absolute in its purest form). What Sri Aurobindo calls the third poise of the Supermind can be associated with tattva 5, which the tradition calls ‘pure mantra-wisdom’ and its qualifying characteristic is an experience of everything (hence diversity) as a manifold diverse play of the same energy. As Christopher Wallis comments (Tantra Illumiated, 2012, 142): “she sees no static matter, experiencing everything as interacting patterns of vibration. The wonder of that which she sees takes precedence over her I-sense, though there is unity between them: ‘I am this!’”. Similarly, the second poise of the Supermind is similar to tattva 4, ‘the Lord’, in which “there is a balanced equality and identity between God and His incipient creation … the experience of reality at this level is ‘I am this; this am I’” (Tantra Illuminated, 143). The first poise thus corresponds to tattva 3, the ‘ever benevolent one’: “this is the level on which only the slightest subtle differentiation has just begun to emerge between the absolute Diety and the idea of the universe that s/he will create out of him/herself … ‘I am this’” (Tantra Illuminated, 143-144). In Chapter 17, Sri Aurobindo will trace back the three poises of the Supermind to the Upanishads, and in particular to the famous verses (6-7) of the Isha (cited at the incipit of Ch 17, 166). Given the conciseness and cryptic nature of the Upanishads, it up for discussion whether this teaching can actually be found there, or whether it is a projection of later systematizations and developments.

Be that as it may, Chapter 17 mostly focuses on the nature of the Supermind and its phenomenological experience of reality as if ignorance never appeared in the world. This can be conceived as a phenomenological attempt at extrapolating how the Supermind would look like and be experienced in its own right, independently from any other distorting factor that can be introduced by mental operations. The key aspect of this reconstruction is that:

The divine soul [=Supermind] living in the Truth of things would, on the contrary, always have the conscious sense of itself as a manifestation of the Absolute […]. This presence of the Absolute would not be with it as an experience occasionally glimpsed or finally arrived at and held with difficulty or as an addition, acquisition or culmination superimposed on its ordinary state of being: it would be the very foundation of its being both in the unity and the differentiation; it would be present to it in all its knowing, willing, doing, enjoying. (Ch 17, 163)

The main purpose of providing this sketch is to prepare the basis for a further interrogation, namely, how could this Supermind be ever embodied in a finite, divisive, mind-life-body compound. This is the issue taken up in Chapter 18. Here, Sri Aurobindo addresses it from an interesting angle. Instead of insisting on the gulf between mind and Supermind, he observes that “it is possible, even probable that mind, body and life are to be found in their pure forms in the divine Truth itself” (Ch 18, 172). In other words, the gulf that seems to separate mind and Supermind is a product of ignorance, but mind itself has to be understood as ultimately something positive, as an instrument and product of Supermind, and thus sharing with it some sort of kinship in nature. This brings us to an exploration of the ‘divine’ (i.e. Supermental) root and essence of mind itself.

The cue for addressing this exploration is provided by the previous discussion. After all, the main purpose of the Supermind is to mediate between the Absolute in its contracted form, and the same Absolute in its expressed and articulated form. Supermind is already a force of articulation, and mind can be understood as a tool for furthering this articulation. We encountered this idea already in previous chapters, but now Sri Aurobindo rephrases it in more positive terms: “Mind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer” (Ch 18, 173). In other words, Mind is the tool of the Supermind for articulating more clearly the difference contained within it, and towards which the Supermind itself constantly moves (especially in its third poise).

In this pure form, mind entails no mistake or ignorance, since it plays the game of differentiation without losing track of the its underpinning unity. Sri Aurobindo introduces a helpful metaphor here:

somewhat as a poet views the creations of his own consciousness placed before him in it as if they were things other than the creator and his creative force, yet all the time they are really no more than the play of self-formation of his own being in itself and are indivisible there from their creator. (Ch 18, 175)

The difference between this uplifted and divine form of mind and the ordinary one is explained through the functioning of Avidya, ignorance. Because of Avidya, the sense of the underpinning unity that unifies the difference is lost, and what were just articulations of the same consciousness appear now as self-standing, separate entities. Hence, the key question becomes:

Whence then does the limiting Avidya, the fall of mind from Supermind and the consequent idea of real division originally proceed? exactly from what perversion of the supramental functioning? It proceeds from the individualised soul viewing everything from its own standpoint and excluding all others; it proceeds, that is to say, by an exclusive concentration of consciousness, an exclusive self-identification of the soul with a particular temporal and spatial action which is only a part of its own play of being. (Ch 18, 178-179)

Avidya is not a new external principle that enters the picture in order to muddying the waters. Avidya is itself a way of functioning of the process of differentiation that moves from Supermind to mind. When this process gets too involved with its own object and results, enough to forget about the background from which it proceeds, then it loses its root, get lost in its own creation, and thus transform the meaning of that creation into something else (from a finite expression of the infinite into a finite independent substance).

This suggests that mind is never too far away from Supermind and that Avidya is always only a sort of superficial covering of the truth:

These truths Mind has to rediscover; it knows them all the time, but only in the hidden back of its consciousness, in the secret light of its self-being; and that light is to it a darkness because it has created the ignorance, because it has lapsed from the dividing into the divided mentality, because it has become involved in its own workings and in its own creations. (Ch 18, 179)

Sri Aurobindo considers then briefly the role that body-identification plays in fostering ignorance. But ultimately, he acknowledges that not even embodiment constitutes a necessary obstacle. The most important take-home message seems to be that mind, by itself, is not something negative or necessarily doomed, but rather a functional segment of the process of the expression through which the Absolute articulates itself. As he puts beautifully:

[Mind] has to enable the One to behave as if He were an individual dealing with other individuals but always in His own unity, and this is what the world really is. […] The Ignorance is the Mind separated in knowledge from its source of knowledge and giving a false rigidity and a mistaken appearance of opposition and conflict to the harmonious play of the supreme Truth in its universal manifestation. The fundamental error of the Mind is, then, this fall from self-knowledge by which the individual soul conceives of its individuality as a separate fact instead of as a form of Oneness and makes itself the centre of its own universe instead of knowing itself as one concentration of the universal. (Ch 18, 182-183)

This brings us back to a key assumption that has led the discussion so far, namely, that ignorance itself can only be conceived as an expression, a functioning, perhaps a distortion, of the same process through which the Absolute (the Truth) manifests itself. This means that even in its most dejected and opaque condition, the mind remains a part of this process of self-manifestation, and even that dejected condition, even ignorance, are parts of it. The next chapters will delve further into this line of inquiry by applying it the nature of Life.

A few questions emerged during the reading group:

  • What are the sources of Sri Aurobindo's view of God? Is he deriving it from a traditional religious background (possibly also Christian)?

  • How shall we assess his attempt at negotiating differences between schools and views, and an underpinning unity? Is he committed to uncover some sort of 'perennial philosophy'?

  • Is his attempt at synthesizing different position connected with his monistic commitments?

  • The three poises of the Supermind can also be correlated (especially at the bottom of p. 159) to three different sub-schools in the Advaita tradition (monistic, qualified monism, and dualist). What is Sri Aurobindo's relation to them?

  • Isn't the explanation of the origin of Avidya (bottom of p. 178) circular? Isn't the exclusive concentration on an object the result of ignorance, more than its cause?

  • By accessing the Supermind, is Sri Aurobindo suggesting not only that the individual itself will raise above individuality, but also that they will have access to all other individualities (as they are all included in the Supermind)?

  • How to reconcile the recurrent scepticism concerning the use of concepts, with the constant proliferation of concepts used by Sri Aurobindo himself?

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