Introduction to The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader: 150th Birth Anniversary EditionEdited by Makarand R Paranjape
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THE KEYNOTE OF Sri Aurobindo’s thought is evolution. As he put it in one of his aphorisms, ‘When we have passed beyond humanity, then we shall be the Man. The Animal was the helper; the Animal is the bar’ (The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, CWSA). He said repeatedly, ‘Man is a transitional being, he is not final’ (CWSA) or ‘Man is a transitional being, he is not final. He is a middle term of the evolution, not its end, crown or consummating masterpiece’ (CWSA).
According to Sri Aurobindo, humanity as we know it, is not the end-point of evolution. Man (I use ‘man’ because that is the word that, with its variations, occurs most frequently in Sri Aurobindo’s thought. It includes woman and should be read as such) as he is at present, is but a transitional being, largely mental, therefore not yet evolved enough to transcend the dualities and false consciousness of our present existence. All the conflict, distortions, and problems which beset humanity may be traced to this flawed consciousness. When we look back at the whole drama of evolution, we see life emerging from matter at first, and then evolving to the stage of mental self-consciousness in man. This evolution is not merely biological, confined to a changing of forms, but is an evolution of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo held that the Absolute, the self-sufficient, the one without a second, or the Satchidananda Parabrahman of the Vedas and Upanishads, was itself involved in what we experience as the universe. Therefore, hidden in the heart of matter is a divine impulse seeking to manifest more and more fully through evolution until it attains its own fullest splendour. This whole process has no ‘reason’ as such except ananda or the endless, boundless joy of existence. So, evolution is the law of life but what makes man special is that he can consciously participate in it. This is precisely what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sought to do, by inviting the Divine into the mental, vital and finally into the physical planes.
Indeed, even without reference to Sri Aurobindo, when we ask the question, ‘After man, what?’ we find a variety of answers depending on where we look. Friedrich Nietzsche conceived of the Superman as a being with a mighty will and urge to power, who could dominate and control the rest of humanity. Arguably, it was a mistaken development from this ideal, corrupted with an aberrant version of social Darwinism which resulted in the monstrous experiments of Hitler to produce the master race. The comic-book notion of Superman is fundamentally the same—he is just like any one of us, but with much greater powers. A being with a flawed, dualistic and imperfect mind, but with infinitely greater powers, both to help and harm is ultimately an Asura or Titan, not a Deva or divine being. All such creatures, endowed with some superior power, but scarcely with a higher consciousness cannot embody our hopes for a higher species. Science fiction, similarly, has given us even more frightening and unnerving portraits of supermen. These are cyborgs, part-men-part-machines, ruthless and predatory, programmed to wreak untold destruction on others, sometimes ceasing to be human altogether by turning into robots and terminators.
In contrast, according to Sri Aurobindo, because total perfection is the destiny of consciousness, a higher being than man must emerge. This will be effected when the Supramental consciousness achieves its fullest fruition upon earth. The Supramental being will be even more different from man than man is from ape. He will be a Divine Being in a fully Divine body. Aurobindonians believe, following the Mother, that it is impossible for us with our present level of development fully even to conceive of such a being. All we can do is form some mental picture from the glimpses and illuminations, which we may receive from the higher planes of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo held that the Absolute, or the Satchidananda Parabrahman of the Vedas and Upanishads, was itself involved in what we experience as the universe. Hidden in the heart of matter is a divine impulse seeking to manifest more and more fully through evolution
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One of the great strengths of Sri Aurobindo’s later work is its clear, detailed and convincing portrayal of this evolutionary process. Now that there is an unprecedented interest in future, the insights offered by Sri Aurobindo are invaluable because in the entire history of this century, there is scarcely a thinker or philosopher more concerned with the future than he. As some say, the Metahuman is already upon us, what with the progress in Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and cybernetics. The problems of humanity cannot be solved by the present level of human consciousness. That is why the Metahuman has become a bio-spiritual necessity for the very survival of the species.
In Sri Aurobindo’s conception of the world, there is a ladder of consciousness, reaching upwards from the very depths of matter and inconscience, through life and mind, to regions above the mind, the Overmind planes, finally to the full manifestation of Divine Perfection and glory in the Supramentalized being. It is at the level of the Overmind that the first glimmers of ignorance in the form of difference and diversity are evident. Yet, in the Overmind, there is differentiation without conflict. But once the descent into mind takes place, ignorance, conflict, violence and dissension all become habitual and routine. Beneath the mind is life, with all its vital instincts, passions and impulses. Beneath even life is physical matter, with its rigid laws and restrictions. This broadly speaking is Sri Aurobindo’s notion of the evolutionary scheme.
This conception is in consonance with the wisdom of the Upanishads and the Yoga philosophy of unfolding levels of consciousness. Every evolutionary leap is accomplished by the wedding of an aspiration from below and the descent of grace from above. Sri Aurobindo, synthesizing the various traditions of ancient spirituality, offered the instrument of purna or Integral Yoga to accomplish the grand destiny of humanity.
In this yoga, the material was not to be shunned nor worshipped as the ultimate truth. The aim was instead to transform matter itself, to Divinize and Spiritualize all our mundane acts and works to lead a divine life while on earth and ultimately, in a divine body. This yoga neither shuns nor embraces the world, but tries to transform it. Another special feature of this yoga is that though individuals perform it, it is collective in its action. The aim is not personal salvation but total and general amelioration of earthly life itself. Finally, in this yoga, surrender is most important. After surrender, the Divine within each individual does the yoga; the ego-bound false self which considers itself as the doer, is no more.
FROM HIS SECLUSION in 1926 to his Mahasamadhi in 1950, Sri Aurobindo continued to work for the descent of the higher consciousness, which he thought was necessary before earthly life could be transformed. ‘No one can write about my life’, said Sri Aurobindo in a letter to a disciple, ‘because it has not been on the surface for man to see’ (Purani, The Life of Sri Aurobindo); similarly, to a biographer he wrote, ‘neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for man to see’ (CWSA).
This statement applies especially to the last twenty-four years of his life. On 8 February 1927, Aurobindo and the Mother moved into the house on Rue François Martin, which is the present ashram block. Aurobindo never left his suite of rooms on these premises. As Purani notes in his Evening Talks, ‘Then the curtain fell. Sri Aurobindo retired completely…’ (Second Series). Until 1938, barring two or three exceptions including Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo saw no one; he lived in almost absolute solitude. However, on 21 February (the Mother’s birthday), 15 August (Sri Aurobindo’s birthday) and 24 November (Siddhi Day), the three ‘darshan days’, the inmates of the ashram could see him.
Evolution is the law of life but what makes man special is that he can consciously participate in it. This is precisely what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sought to do, by inviting the Divine into the mental, vital and finally into the physical planes
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After 1930, Sri Aurobindo began to reply to the letters which his disciples sent him, answering their queries about spiritual practice. This correspondence gradually became so extensive and massive that it came to occupy over 2,000 printed pages. Sri Aurobindo often spent twelve hours a day or more in this activity. Most of this record has been published and presents one of the most fascinating archives of spiritual life available anywhere. The letters were much more than merely words; each of them embodied a certain force and power which acted directly on the physical, vital, mental, and spiritual being of the addressees.
During this period, Sri Aurobindo also resumed writing poetry. Unlike his earlier romantic or heroic poems, his new work belonged to his mature phase. During the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote several short poems, many of which are in innovative, including the seldom-practiced quantitative, metres. In addition, he wrote a series of seventy-three sonnets, unique for their spiritual content. What is more, he composed and revised his epic Savitri which is one of the most unusual and ambitious poems of this century. Besides poetry, Aurobindo also worked on revising his major prose works during these two decades. The Life Divine, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity were all reissued.
On 24 November 1938, in the early hours of darshan day, Sri Aurobindo fractured his leg in an accident. This incident necessitated a modification in Aurobindo’s total retirement, rendering him available to those, including doctors, who attended upon him. Because two darshan days had been missed, Sri Aurobindo gave a special darshan on 24 April, the day of the Mother’s final arrival in Pondicherry; subsequently, this became the fourth darshan day in the ashram calendar. In 1939, World War II broke out. Throughout the war Sri Aurobindo kept himself well-informed about the latest developments. Though at first he did not show any active concern, when it seemed Hitler would triumph, he declared publicly his support for the Allies: ‘He saw that behind Hitler and Nazism were dark Asuric forces and that their success would mean the enslavement of mankind to the tyranny of evil, and a set-back to the course of evolution and especially to the spiritual evolution of mankind…’ (Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library). During this period Sri Aurobindo went against the prevailing national opinion, which was divided, if not bitterly anti-British.
In 1942, Sri Aurobindo supported Sir Stafford Cripps’ proposals offering Dominion Status to India in return for support in the war effort. Sri Aurobindo not only sent a personal message to Cripps, but tried to persuade the Congress to accept the offer. The victory of the Allies in 1945 was celebrated in the ashram. When India became free on 15 August 1947, Sri Aurobindo, in a message issued on his seventy-fifth birthday, considered the event as ‘the end of an old era, the beginning of a new age’ (CWSA). He spoke of five dreams of his which had seemed very impractical, but which now were arriving at fruition. The independence of India, the resurgence of Asia, the formation of a world-union, the spiritual gift of India to the world and the next step in evolution were the world-movements which Sri Aurobindo had supported and he had the satisfaction of seeing them progressing towards fulfilment in his own lifetime.
The problems of humanity cannot be solved by the present level of human consciousness. That is why the Metahuman has become a bio-spiritual necessity for the very survival of the species
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On 5 December 1950, Sri Aurobindo passed away. He was suffering from uraemia and had a kidney infection. It is documented that his body was bathed in an unearthly glow and remained uncorrupted for over 111 hours. It would be an understatement to say that his passing shocked those in the ashram. In fact, they were desolate, not just with the grief of the passing of their Guru, but with the realization that the work of supramentalizing the earth would now be postponed. Bravely, Mirra Alfassa, or the Mother, took on the mantle of sustaining the cherished mission of Sri Aurobindo, declaring that Sri Aurobindo had given her an assurance that he ‘would remain here and not leave the earth atmosphere until earth is transformed’ (Purani, The Life of Sri Aurobindo).
(This is a curated excerpt from the Introduction to The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader: 150th Birth Anniversary Edition edited by Makarand R Paranjape)