How Sri Aurobindo's interpretation of Vedanta encourages the life-enriching element of spirituality for both the ascetic and materialist in order to raise universal consciousness.
Dr. Ramesh Bijlani is a medical doctor, educationist, writer, inspirational speaker, teacher, scientist, and above all a person committed to using his unique blend of talents for touching the hearts and lives of his fellow beings. He has written extensively for children, adults and health care professionals: he has seventeen published books to his credit. He has been staying and working at Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Delhi Branch since 2007.
Like every other spiritual philosophy, Vedanta also seeks to answer basic existential questions such as ‘who am I’ and ‘what is the purpose of life’. Vedanta is rooted in the experiences of many mystics and seers (rishis), some of whom attempted verbal descriptions of what they experienced. These descriptions constitute the Upanishads. Although more than a hundred Upanishads have survived, that has not stopped other seekers from going on an independent spiritual quest, and recording their experiences. One of the greatest seers of the present age has been Sri Aurobindo, and based on his experiences he wrote Savitri and The Life Divine. These two masterpieces of his may he considered twentieth century Upanishads written in the English language. The Life Divine is based on Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual realization, but it includes also a complete and coherent philosophy that takes Vedanta one step forwards. But what is perhaps of even greater immediate significance, Sri Aurobindo makes a powerful case for restoring the life-affirming and life-enriching element of spirituality that had somehow gone into oblivion over a period of about 1000 years, starting with the tenth century.
The Spiritual Worldview
In order to understand the spiritual worldview, it is helpful to go back to the very beginning, the time when the universe as we know it, did not exist. The universe could have come into being either as the result of an accident, or could have been created by a power that already existed. Spiritual philosophers argue that all order results from an intelligent design; accidents lead only to chaos. For example, nobody assumes that this article could be the accidental result of a monkey tapping the keys of a keyboard at random. Similarly, nobody would believe that an aeroplane can get assembled accidentally by a tornado blowing through the Boeing factory. The tornado can given us only a heap of spare parts, not an aeroplane. If we assume an intelligent design behind a mere article or an aeroplane, how could the remarkably well-organized universe have come into being without such a design? However, the intelligent Designer who designed the universe had one major problem: where to find the material for implementing the design. The Designer itself was a non-material entity, and the material for creating the universe did not exist, because the universe did not exist. Vedanta has solved this problem by postulating that the Creator did not create the material universe; It became the universe. One of analogies given in the Mundaka Upanishad (I, 1:7) to explain this process is that of the spider, who brings forth the material for its web out of itself. The Creator becoming the creation does not just solve the problem of finding the material; it also has an important corollary. The corollary is that the Creator is there in all Its creation. For example, if a child starts with a square piece of paper and folds it to make a boat, we do not need any evidence to prove that the boat contains the paper. Since the boat is nothing but the paper in another form, it is understood that the boat contains the paper. Similarly, the creation is nothing but the Creator in another form; the non-material Creator has simply assumed a material form, or manifested in a material form. Hence, it is understood that the Creator resides throughout the creation. Thus the creation has two aspects: a visible finite and perishable appearance, and an invisible infinite and imperishable core. The invisible aspect is referred to as the universal spirit, or just the spirit. It is called the spirit because it is not obvious, and is yet the core reality. For example, when we say that the spirit of the painter is there in her painting, what is implied is that, although not obvious, the personality of the painter is reflected in the painting. Similarly, the invisible but unmistakable all-pervasive presence of the Creator in Its creation is referred to as the spirit; and this way of looking at the universe is called the spiritual worldview. Although the essentials of Vedanta have remained the same for more than two thousand years, the emphasis on one aspect or the other has been changing.
The Spirit is All
The interpretation of Vedanta that received increasing acceptance in India from the tenth century onwards was that the picture of reality, as constructed by the senses, is deceptive because it excludes the invisible Absolute Reality behind, above, within and beyond the visible reality. Hence the reality based on sensory perception was termed an illusion. This illusory reality is just a phenomenon. Like a phenomenon, it has a beginning and an end; and between the beginning and the end, there is constant change. Therefore the reality perceived by the senses has been compared to a play in which actors keep entering and leaving the stage, only to be replaced by another set of actors. However, behind and beyond this illusion is the imperishable and constant Absolute Reality, termed Brahman in Vedanta. This interpretation of Vedanta makes worldly life look like a distraction unworthy of serious attention. The one thing that matters is Brahman, and to pursue that is the purpose of human life. The body and the mind are treated as self-seeking obstacles on the path of realization of Brahman, the Reality that really matters. However, renouncing the world to pursue the Divine has always been the province of only a select few. These select few live a spiritual life; the rest of humanity lives the worldly life. This creates a dichotomy between worldly life and spiritual life. The majority of mankind prefers to live the worldly life because of its half-awake ignorant consciousness. Worldly life is interesting, but leads nowhere. It is an aimless drift filled with pursuit of fleeting pleasures. On the other hand, spiritual life demands renunciation of everything that comes in way of the one goal that is worth pursuing. That is the path chosen by the sages. However, this is only one way in which Vedanta may be looked at.
Two Layers of Reality
The other interpretation of Vedanta emphasizes that matter is another form of the Absolute Reality. The picture of reality constructed by the senses is only a part of the reality, but it is not unreal. Hence, the world is not an illusion but a manifestation of the Divine. If the Divine is Real, Its manifestation cannot be unreal. The world may be a temporary reality, but while it lasts it is not unreal. Matter and spirit are two layers of the same Reality, matter being the superficial reality, and the spirit its deeper Reality. Because of the inherently divine nature of matter, even matter should be respected rather than rejected. Similarly, the world, and worldly life also should not be rejected. Further, Sri Aurobindo has emphasized that not only is worldly life real, but it can, and it should, be transformed to befit the One that it manifests. The life-affirming emphasis on spirituality in not new. The Isha Upanishad said long ago that in darkness are those who are ignorant, and in still greater darkness are those who have the knowledge alone (verse 9). The knowledge implied here is that of the Absolute Reality. Those who are ignorant of this knowledge are of course in darkness. But it seems strange that the Upanishad considers it possible that those who have the knowledge may be in still greater darkness. The reference here is to the ascetic who has discovered that the only lasting Reality of the universe is Brahman, and who therefore refuses to see matter as real. His ignorance lies in not seeing that matter is also a manifestation of Brahman. His ignorance lies in seeing the invisible Brahman, but not seeing the same Brahman in visible matter. Such an ascetic denies one aspect of the very Reality that he accepts, and is therefore in dark. His darkness is greater than that of the ordinary person who, due to ignorance, considers matter to be the entire reality. The ordinary ignorant person, due to his inability to see the spirit of the Divine in matter, is also denying an aspect of reality. But there is always the hope that one day he may discover the all-pervasive spirit of the Divine in matter. On the other hand, the ascetic lives in the smug satisfaction of knowing the Absolute Reality. He lives under the impression that he knows the Reality beyond which there is nothing to be known. Hence, not only is his knowledge incomplete, he is also beyond redemption. Therefore, this ascetic is in a still greater darkness. Like the Isha Upanishad, Sri Aurobindo has also dismissed both the ‘denial of the materialist’ and the ‘refusal of the ascetic’ as two types of ignorance. The Gita did the same long ago by accepting the manifest (kshara) Brahman and the unmanifest (akshara) Brahman as two aspects of the one Purushottama. Sri Aurobindo says it all in three lines in Savitri (p. 407):
I looked upon the world and missed the Self,
And when I found the Self, I lost the world,
My other selves I lost and the body of God, …
Of these three lines, the first is the ‘denial of the materialist’; the second is the ‘refusal of the ascetic’; and the third is the flaw in the ‘refusal of the ascetic’ who, therefore, loses sight of the identity he has with the rest of the creation and also misses the joy of seeing “the body of God”.
Does it Matter?
How we interpret Vedanta has important practical implications. Dismissing the visible universe as an illusion and considering the invisible Absolute Reality to be the sole reality has at least three corollaries. First, it makes spirituality the preserve of only a select few. Secondly, and more importantly, it makes worldly activity look like an exercise in futility. Hence, even those engaged in worldly activity do not put their heart and soul into it. Finally, and most important, it assigns a separate compartment to worldly life and spiritual life. The time that I spend in the temple has nothing to do with what I do during the rest of the day (except the hope that going to the temple will bring me greater success in worldly life!). My independent existence with my individual desires and ambitions is the sole reality of worldly life. On the other hand, seeing the Divine in all creation implies respect for all creation, including a material object. It also implies that at the deepest level we are all interrelated and interdependent. This vision translates into love and compassion for my fellow beings. The lazy, lackadaisical and selfish attitude induced by the life-negating view of spirituality was perhaps responsible for India’s gradual but steady decline from the tenth century onwards. By the nineteenth century, India was passing through its most decadent phase. But thanks to the tenacity of the Indian culture, lotuses continued to bloom in the muddy pool that India had become. The great thinkers and seers that India had the good fortune of having in the nineteenth and twentieth century saw through the damage that life-negation had done to the Indian psyche. Just to name three of them, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo have one common thread running through their teachings. The thread is that spirituality enlightens, enhances and enriches worldly activity. Each of them, in his own way, tried to revive the message of the Gita that all action should be done from a yogic poise (2:48). Spirituality is primarily an inner exploration, but the inner discovery remains incomplete unless it is reflected in outer life.
Towards a Supramental Future
Spirituality can be both life-negating and life-affirming. Sri Aurobindo made a powerful and rational case for the life-affirming view of spirituality. Further, his spiritual philosophy is couched in terms of evolution. The evolution from matter to life, and from life to mind is a gradual unfolding of the Supreme Consciousness of the Divine. While the divine consciousness is almost completely hidden in matter, it is at least partly expressed in creatures having a mind. Man is the latest but not the final product of the evolutionary process. There is reason to believe that in the next step in evolution, mind will give way to supermind. A glimpse of what the supermind will be like may be had from the leap in consciousness that the rishis and mystics experience by going through a discipline characterized by intense concentration and extreme self-purification. However, what has been so far possible for only a select few could become the norm in future. While the evolution of the supermind is certain, human beings are in the unique position of collaborating with nature, and thereby accelerating the process of evolution. Bringing spirituality into our everyday life leads to the growth of consciousness of individuals. If the number of individuals consciously living a life conducive to growth of consciousness reaches a critical mass, it will lead to a rise in the level of earth consciousness. A rise in the level of earth consciousness would mean a radical upward shift in the motives that drive worldly activities. The ripple effect of a significant number of people acting from a higher level of consciousness was demonstrated recently in Delhi. Thus the hope that a critical mass of people working together can raise earth consciousness, and that the new earth consciousness will change the way the world runs, is not wild fantasy. It is this collective goal towards which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother worked, the goal to which they gave their lives, and the goal which they set for the humanity of tomorrow.